To Secure These Rights
On February 13, 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army at Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. That evening, he boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Winnsboro, South Carolina. At a stop outside Augusta, he asked the driver to wait while he used the restroom. The driver, A. C. Blackwell, refused, and an argument ensued. Woodard apparently resented the belittling expressions Blackwell used to rebuff his request and told the driver so. Eventually Blackwell relented, and the bus waited while Woodard relieved his bladder.
What occurred next is disputed. The driver claimed Woodard and several other soldiers were drunk and disruptive and that Woodard's behavior had offended a female passenger. Woodard claimed he was sober, a fact attested to by some of his fellow veterans, and that his only offense had been talking back to the driver who had treated him disrespectfully. When he returned from the restroom, he had taken his seat without any further exchange with Blackwell and sat quietly until the bus stopped in Batesburg, South Carolina.
Blackwell left the bus for a moment and returned with the town's chief of police, Lynwood Shull, and another officer, Elliot Long, who took Woodard off the bus and struck him. Shull later claimed that Woodard had been drunk and profane, and he had to threaten him with his blackjack but had not, at that point, felt it necessary to use violence. Several passengers who witnessed the incident contradicted him. Both Shull and Woodard agreed that violence was used moments later.
Shull dragged Woodard into a nearby alley, out of the other passengers' sight. Woodard admitted that he had tried to wrest the blackjack from the 210-pound Shull, after the police chief assaulted him when he had answered a question with "yes" instead of "yes, sir." Shull claimed that he had acted in self-defense. After Officer Long arrived on the scene, the struggle, however it started, became a beating. Shull later admitted he struck Woodard with his nightstick but couldn't recall how many times. Woodard claimed that he was beaten repeatedly about his head and that Shull jabbed at both his eyes with the stick. When the beating subsided, Shull and Long took the bleeding Woodard to jail and dumped him in a cell, leaving his wounds untreated.
When he awoke in the morning, Woodard's sight had begun to fail. He was taken before a local judge, tried and convicted of drunk-and-disorderly conduct, and fined fifty dollars. Returned to his cell, he asked for a doctor. Two days later, a doctor arrived, who advised that he be removed to the veterans' hospital in Columbia. The army located him there three weeks later, after his family had filed a missing person's report, and immediately transferred him to an army hospital in Spartanburg, where doctors pronounced him completely blind. Both his eyes had been ruptured in their sockets by blows from Lynwood Shull's nightstick.
As outrageous as it was, the savage beating inflicted on Sergeant Woodard was not unusual for the time and place in which it occurred. Isaac Woodard was black. His antagonists were white. In the completely segregated south of the 1940s, an African American's civil rights were not, as a matter of course, viewed as an obstacle to any form of abuse.
Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a twenty-seven-year-old decorated veteran, just returned from the Pacific theater and discharged from the army for only a few hours, might have expected a better welcome from fellow citizens who had managed to avoid military service. He should have known better. He had been born in South Carolina and raised in North Carolina. He knew how resistant racist culture was to change, to any African American's aspirations for justice, veteran or not. But war changes a man. His service, as it had for thousands of African-American soldiers, had apparently given him the idea that white Americans, even below the Mason-Dixon line, owed him more respect than they had shown him before he had put on a soldier's uniform and risked his life for his country. Southern defenders of white supremacy were offended by this notion. And they resolved to disabuse the veterans of these presumptions, immediately.
The first postwar months saw a marked rise in Ku Klux Klan activity, as it thrived from white southerners' concerns that the war had empowered black soldiers to upset the existing social order. And the Klan's revival was not only a southern phenomenon. In the State of New York, Klan membership had increased and its public demonstrations had become more frequent and well attended. But in the south, more drastic action was taken to express old hatreds.
In February 1946, a white man in Columbia, Tennessee, struck a black woman. Her son, a recently returned navy veteran, James Stephenson, threw him through a plate-glass window. A lynch mob headed for the black section of town, intent on killing Stephenson, only to encounter a group of armed black veterans. In the ensuing violence, several of the mob were killed or wounded, including four white policemen. The governor dispatched five hundred state troopers to the scene, who fired indiscriminately at people, destroyed everything in their path, arrested more than one hundred men, and murdered two of them while they were in jail. An attorney for the NAACP, who served as counsel for the defendants, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, likened the state's action to the behavior of "German storm troopers."
On July 25, army veteran George Dorsey, his wife, May, his sister-in-law, and her husband were stopped on a bridge in Walton County, Georgia, by a gang of more than twenty men and pulled from a car driven by the white farmer who employed them as sharecroppers. Their unrecognizable bodies were found by the bank of the Appalachian River, riddled with more than sixty bullet wounds. The man who had driven them to their terrible fate remarked that "before George went into the service he was a pretty good nigger, but after he got out he thought he was as good as any white man."
The same night, Maceo Snipes, another decorated veteran, answered a knock on the door of his mother's house in Butler, Georgia, and was shot dead. He had voted that day in a Democratic primary election, the only African American in his district to exercise his franchise.
In August, a white mob tortured to death, with a blowtorch and meat cleaver, another veteran, John C. Jones, and dumped his body in a swamp near Minden, Louisiana.
These were some of the worst but hardly the only incidents in a wave of white violence against black veterans. Their tragedies outraged decent Americans and galvanized civil-rights organizations to protest the shameful treatment of black veterans in the south and the unyielding injustice of Jim Crow laws. The executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, discussed the shocking stories with a friend who was himself a decorated veteran of World War I and whose affection for his brothers in arms had ever remained boundless.
Certainly, White knew the background of the man with whom he shared his outrage. He was an eminent citizen of a segregated border state, born just two decades after the Civil War, whose family, former slave owners, still nursed resentment for the rough treatment they had received from Union forces. He had long harbored racial prejudices common to the family and culture that had raised him. He used the word "nigger," not maliciously but as one of the conventions of white conversation in that day. He was not known to have lately developed any radical sympathies for the cause of racial justice. White knew him to be a good man and respected him. He knew him to be a man of proven integrity who, though he had stayed loyal to the boss of a corrupt political machine who had been his patron, was scrupulously honest himself. The machine had relied on the votes of urban blacks and had taken care to show some concern for their welfare. And the man to whom White now turned had always showed himself to be an instinctively courteous and concerned man to people of color. But he surely wasn't a rabble-rouser when it came to race relations. On the contrary, he was a well-intentioned fellow, with a basic instinct for fairness and supporting the underdog, who tried to do right but who had not transcended the deeply embedded biases of American culture in the mid-twentieth century.
In a speech six years before, he had pledged his concern for the treatment and condition of African Americans but cautioned his all-black audience that he was not "appealing for the social equality of the Negro. The Negro himself knows better than that, and the highest type of Negro leaders say quite frankly they prefer the society of their own people. Negroes want justice, not social relations." But he continued by offering "a note of warning. Numberless antagonisms and indignities heaped upon any race will eventually try human patience to the limit and a crisis will develop. We all know that the Negro is here to stay and in no way can be removed from our political and economic life, and we should recognize his inalienable rights as specified in our Constitution. Can any man claim protection of our laws if he denies that protection to others?"
He was a good man, a just one, though only a little ahead of his times. But he was something else, as well, to the black veterans who suffered atrocities in the south. He was their commander-in-chief, and Harry S Truman took the responsibilities of his job very seriously.
When Harry Truman first ran for political office in 1922, an army buddy suggested that he get in the good graces of the Klan, which was growing in influence in Jackson County, Missouri, and could help secure his election in a difficult, crowded Democratic primary. He balked at the suggestion at first but was eventually persuaded to pay a ten-dollar membership fee and to agree to meet with a Klan organizer. But when the Klan official told Truman he must promise if elected never to hire Catholics, Truman asked for his ten dollars back. He had commanded in World War I a battery made up of Irish Catholics from Kansas City, whom he affectionately referred to as his "Irish bunch." Ever since, he had insisted that his "comrades in arms are closer than brothers to me." The Klan opposed Truman in that campaign and every one of his subsequent campaigns. He didn't much care. He had never liked them.
Truman first met Walter White only a few weeks after he had become president, and both men emerged from the meeting considering each other friends. In a symbolically important move, the new president had invited the NAACP leader to the White House, where they discussed, among other things, making permanent the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), which President Roosevelt had created by executive order. Its mandate was soon to expire, and Truman needed congressional approval to make it permanent and to secure funding for its operations. Roosevelt had not been willing to push Congress for the legislation, but Truman was. On June 5, 1945, he wrote the chairman of the House Rules Committee, where the bill had been buried, warning that "discrimination in the matter of employment against properly qualified persons is not only un-American in nature, but will lead eventually to industrial strife and unrest." A week later in a press conference, he urged Congress to move the legislation forward.
Southern Democrats in the Senate reacted predictably, in words that would shock most Americans three generations later. Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi warned his colleagues that "the niggers and the Jews of New York are working hand in hand. . . . This is a damnable, Communist, poisonous piece of legislation." Mississippi's other senator, James Eastland, concurred and disparaged the people whom the legislation was intended to protect. "We are dealing with an inferior race. . . . Negro soldiers have caused the U.S.A. to lose prestige all over Europe. . . . They will not fight. They will not work."
Ultimately, though Truman continued to push for a permanent FEPC for more than a year, a Senate filibuster killed the legislation. All he had to show for his efforts was a small appropriation that allowed the commission to finish its last report before going out of business.
Truman and White's meeting occurred years before the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education accelerated the great struggle for racial justice in the fifties and sixties. Although the abuses inflicted on black veterans in the south had mobilized civil-rights organizations and attracted the activism of prominent white citizens, there was no widespread clamor in the country, and certainly not in the comfortably bigoted offices of Congress, to restore to African Americans their constitutional rights. Washington itself was a -segregated town, where black citizens weren't treated any better than they were in Kansas City and probably worse.
Neither was Truman in much of a position to be politically daring. He had only five months before succeeded the beloved Franklin Roosevelt and was believed by much of the country and official Washington to so lack the skills, intelligence, and charm of the late president as to make any comparison between them absurd. He was well liked in Washington and back home, and for the most part he was respected on Capitol Hill, where he had served ably as a senator. But no one, except his closest friends (and not all of them), thought he was the right man for the job. His popularity, as measured in public-opinion polls, was low, and his prospects were poor for being anything other than a caretaker of the federal government until a more suitable chief executive could be found.
When Truman inherited the presidency, he was seen to be an inconsequential man in charge during hugely consequential times. The war had yet to end. The decisions he was required to make to end the war and to establish the basic structure and institutions of the postwar world order were immensely difficult and burdensome. The Potsdam Conference where Truman had met with those formidable and experienced players on the world stage, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, occurred only a few months after he had been sworn in. The decision to drop the first atom bomb on Japan awaited him. Negotiations to establish the United Nations were ongoing. After Japan's surrender, Truman led the free world in the opening days of the Cold War with our former ally, the Soviet Union. His administration was to launch the Marshall Plan and announce the Truman Doctrine, which became the basic strategic doctrine of the Cold War, providing assistance to Greece and Turkey to prevent the Soviets from turning them into satellite states. These and many other monumentally important decisions were the responsibility of the modest former haberdasher with a high school education. Few would have advised him that this would be a good time to launch a groundbreaking initiative on civil rights.
Yet after Walter White and his associates shared with Truman on September 19, 1946, the details of southern atrocities against veterans, Truman took immediate action. He was not a man to ignore a shocked conscience or let actions so vile to his sound moral code go unanswered. These men were soldiers who had defended their country. They had a right to decent treatment from their fellow citizens, wherever they might live.
In his memoirs, Walter White recalled a stunned Truman reacting to the information he had just received. "My God," said Truman, "I had no idea it was as terrible as that! We've got to do something." He told his attorney general, Tom Clark, to investigate federal crimes committed against veterans in the south and to apprehend and prosecute the culprits. This Clark did, with mixed success. Six days after Woodard's beating, federal agents arrested Lynwood Shull, but an all-white jury subsequently acquitted him. Clark was a good man, with notably liberal sentiments about civil rights for a southerner from a family with a slave-owning past. He tried his best. But J. Edgar Hoover, whose agents did the investigating, decidedly did not share those sentiments. And southern white juries were surely not the hanging kind in trials where white men were accused of abusing the rights of African Americans. The day after his meeting with Walter White, Truman ruminated in a note to Clark about appointing on his own authority a federal commission to examine racial injustice and report to Congress recommendations to improve the situation.
It would be a mistake to suggest that the decision to create a presidential civil-rights commission was motivated solely by Truman's outrage over the treatment of veterans. It greatly upset him, indeed. But in this decision, as in so many others, he was impelled to act by more than his innate sense of fairness or respect for the sacrifices of American fighting men. Although Truman had less formal education than most of his predecessors, he was an extraordinarily well-read man, who, as a boy growing up in the hard and often lonely environment of a small family farm, had read all the texts of a classical liberal education. He could quote "old Cicero" or Plutarch or Marcus Aurelius as correctly and aptly as could a Harvard scholar. And he was very well versed in the philosophy and history of the American republic. He had a genuine and animating devotion to the country's founding texts, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He was now a constitutional officer, and he took his oath to uphold the Constitution as seriously as he took his responsibilities as a husband and father.
Truman also knew that racial injustice at home exposed Americans as hypocrites and weakened our moral standing and our ability to establish a new world order based on the principles of democracy and justice. He knew that our new enemy, the Soviets, was quick to point to that hypocrisy as they prepared to draw an iron curtain over half of Europe.
So, on December 5, 1946, Truman issued Executive Order 9808, creating the first Presidential Committee on Civil Rights, comprised of fifteen eminent Americans of European and African descent, with a mandate to examine all areas of racial and religious discrimination and to report what actions, either by legislation or presidential directive, were required to remedy the injustices. One month prior to the announcement, the voters had handed Truman a humiliating setback. The midterm elections of 1946 produced Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Truman's own popularity had sunk to the mid-thirties in public-opinion polls, which also showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans did not support any new federal civil-rights policies. Truman knew that the new Republican majorities on the Hill, working with southern Democrats, would not provide the funds for his new committee's operation, so he paid for it out of the presidency's contingency fund.
Excerpted from Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them by John McCain, with Mark Salter. Copyright 2007.