In this enlightening study, judge and historian Gergel illuminates the far-reaching effects of an individual act of cruelty. Gergel lays out the terrible racial logic that led from decorated WWII veteran Isaac Woodard’s innocuous request that the driver of his Greyhound bus allow him a rest stop to him permanently losing his eyesight after South Carolina police chief Lynwood Shull assaulted him with a blackjack in 1946. When NAACP leader Walter White brought Woodard’s case to President Truman’s attention, the latter, aware that this was far from an isolated instance of racist violence, responded: “We have got to do something.” Truman created the first presidential committee on civil rights, whose investigations led, by 1948, to the desegregation of the nation’s armed forces, a crucial precedent to the reforms of the next two decades. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, an all-white jury acquitted Shull; this outcome so appalled the presiding judge, Waties Waring, that he became a civil rights crusader in the heart of the former Confederacy. Gergel’s prose is workmanlike, and he narrates this story in greater detail than some readers may desire, but this is an important work on the prehistory of the civil rights struggle and an insightful account of how a single incident can inspire massive social and political changes. Agent: Lisa Adams, Garamond Agency. (Jan.)
A federal judge from South Carolina examines a rarely mentioned 1946 race-based crime that profoundly altered officially sanctioned segregation of blacks in the white-dominated United States.
Gergel (In the Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia, South Carolina, 1996) drew inspiration from a courageous predecessor judge who presided in the Charleston federal courthouse. However, the searing narrative does not open with the heroic judge, J. Waties Waring (1880-1968). Rather, the author opens in 1945, as roughly 900,000 black soldiers returned to the U.S. after serving their country in World War II. One of them, Isaac Woodard (1919-1992), was on a bus in rural South Carolina, planning to return to his family. The white bus driver perceived that Woodard, dressed in his military uniform, was acting disrespectfully, so he halted the bus and ejected him, handing him over to the racist local police chief, Lynwood Shull. Although unprovoked, Shull beat Woodard with a blackjack, with special force around his eyes. The wounds caused almost immediate blindness, and Woodard lay helpless in the local jail. Eventually, news of the beating reached civil rights activists, who made sure President Harry Truman heard about the brutality. That set in motion legal proceedings culminating in charges that were shocking at the time. At Truman's insistence, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Shull. The case unfolded in the courtroom of Judge Waring, and an all-white jury quickly acquitted Shull. However, the obviously unjust verdict shook Waring to his emotional core, and he spent the remainder of his career writing rulings meant to promote fairness for blacks in his courtroom, working remotely with such allies as the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall. President Truman reacted to the beating of Woodard by ordering racial integration of the U.S. military despite massive resistance. Gergel is both an astute researcher and an engaging writer, bringing this significant story to vivid life.
Civil rights history at its most compelling.
“Richard Gergel presents a deeply researched account of [Isaac] Woodard’s tragic story and weaves it into a larger narrative . . . The definitive account of Woodard’s blinding.” Kenneth W. Mack, The Washington Post
“A fascinating historical and legal investigation . . . Gergel reintroduces oft-forgotten civil rights heroes in this captivating, deeply researched work that is likely to draw in general readers, historians, and legal scholars alike.” Karl Helicher, Library Journal
“Gergel presents a compelling account of a case that helped point the way for broader, more intense, and more effective efforts in the civil rights movement.” Jay Freeman, Booklist
“In this enlightening study, judge and historian Gergel illuminates the far-reaching effects of an individual act of cruelty . . . This is an important work on the prehistory of the civil rights struggle and an insightful account of how a single incident can inspire massive social and political changes.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A federal judge from South Carolina examines a rarely mentioned 1946 race-based crime . . . Gergel is both an astute researcher and an engaging writer, bringing this significant story to vivid life . . . civil rights history at its most compelling.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Drawing on his exhaustive investigation of the brutal encounter between a black soldier and a southern police officer, Richard Gergel widens the lens on a critical moment in American history. Unexampled Courage tells a riveting story about the personalities and forces that converged in the aftermath of World War II to fuel the movement that would dismantle Jim Crow and transform the nation.” Patricia Sullivan, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and author of Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement
“Unexampled Courage is a searing work of history that must be read in today’s America: an account of the fight for civil rights that reminds us just how much we depend on the bravery of a few to right the wrongs of the many. Reading it is an emotional journey. There are tears of rage, but also of admiration for the extraordinary courage of a brutalized and blinded black soldier; of a southern judge whose conscience drove him to oppose his racist heritage; and an American president who risked everything to do what he believed to be right at a time when the United States hoped its moral leadership would resonate around the world.”
Christopher Dickey, author of Our Man in Charleston
“Unexampled Courage, set in the Jim Crow South after World War II, recovers a pivotal moment in America’s civil rights movement. This remarkable story reminds us of the enduring power of the rule of law, even under the most daunting circumstances, when men and women stand for justice. A timely book; a monumental achievement.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
"Remarkable . . . riveting . . . a revealing window into both the hideous racial violence and humiliation of segregation . . . and the heroic origin of the legal crusade to destroy Jim Crow . . . an engrossing history . . . The great value of Unexampled Courage is that it might garner a broad audience for the kinds of heroism involved in this history of litigation . . . Would that Chief Justice John Roberts and his fellow conservative justices might read this riveting legal history and rethink the decision in Shelby v. Holder of 2013, which eviscerated federal oversight of voting rights in the Deep South. But while we wait for that unlikelihood, we should remember that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed because of the history Gergel recounts." David W. Blight, New York Times Book Review
"Gergel’s hallmark is an emphasis on how people at every level contribute to the making of history...He makes that point memorably in Unexampled Courage. Hopefully it will nurture the ground from which will arise more effective efforts in our own time to confront the ongoing menace of racially motivated police violence." Randall Kennedy, The American Prospect
When returning home from his tour in World War II, Sgt. Isaac Woodard was brutally beaten and blinded by the police chief of Batesburg, SC, for allegedly not showing the due respect to a white bus driver by an African American in the Jim Crow South. Gergel, a U.S. District Judge in South Carolina and coauthor of Pursuit of the Tree of Life, offers a fascinating historical and legal investigation of this event and how it ignited the postwar civil rights movement. The Woodard incident shocked President Harry Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, both of whom, along with Woodard, displayed "the unexampled courage," says Gergel, essential to ensuring African Americans their constitutional rights. Truman, constrained by powerful Southern legislators, used his appointment power and executive orders to desegregate the armed forces and to create the President's Committee on Civil Rights. Waring evolved from a judicial gradualist into a civil rights advocate, whose opinions became the leading arguments for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation. VERDICT Gergel reintroduces oft-forgotten civil rights heroes in this captivating, deeply researched work that is likely to draw in general readers, historians, and legal scholars alike.—Karl Helicher, formerly with Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA