Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Book Review: Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring by Richard Gergel

In 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was on a Greyhound bus heading home from having served in WWII. He asked to step off the bus to use the restroom. He and the bus driver had words. Police were called. The police chief beat the tar out of him and drive his nightstick into both of Woodard's eyes, blinding him. More than a decade before when we think of the Civil Rights Movement beginning, it had already begun. This case galvanized the NAACP, taught a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall a thing or two about trying politically charged cases, and most importantly, it changed the mind of a young judge named J. Waties Waring in South Carolina. Waring couldn't change the outcome of this case. But the shocking things he learned about the treatment of African-Americans in America made him look into it further, made him an activist, and his dissent in a public school segregation case in 1951 was pretty much quoted word for word a few years later by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

We often see the big events only, without context, without understanding of what lead up to them. We don't understand the decades of anguish and servility and mistreatment that lead up to them. And we also don't understand what events lead great men (and this era, it was mostly men) to buck the trend and to stand up for what was right instead of what was accepted. Woodard and Waring's names have been mostly lost to history, except for those who study the Civil Rights movement in the United States. We ought to remember them. What might seem like solitary incidents of brutality and incivility can later lead to great change. One can find much inspiration in stories like these today.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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