Orson Welles SOT, Radio: Good morning, this is Orson Welles speaking. Iíd like to read to you an affidavit. I, Isaac Woodard Jr, being duly sworn do depose and state as follows. I am twenty-seven years old and a veteran of the united states army, having served for fifteen months in the south pacific, and earned one battle star. While i was in uniform I purchased a ticket to Winnsboro, South Carolina, and took the bus headed there to pick up my wife to come to New York to see my father and mother.
About one hour out of Atlanta, the bus driver got off and went and got the police. The policeman grabbed me by my left arm and twisted it behind my back. I figured he was trying to make me resist. I did not resist against him. Another policeman held his gun on me while the other one was beating me. I started to get up, he started punching me in my eyes. He knocked me unconscious.
I woke up next morning and could not see. They took me to the veteranís hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. They told me i should join a blind school.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: You have a man wearing a dress uniform. He has medals on his chest. All the symbols of sacrifice and service are there and it doesn't matter, it just doesn't matter.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: To a white southerner in 1946, nothing is more provocative than a black man in uniform.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: You have law enforcement coming with the full savagery of southern racism. No one can say that what happened to Isaac Woodard was justified.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: It just seemed to be something that shouldn't happen in America.
Orson Welles SOT, Radio: the officer of the law was just another white man with a stick, who wanted to teach a negro boy a lesson ó to show a negro boy where he belonged: in the darkness.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Are we going to have people who live in the united states and are less equal than others? What are we going to do about this?
Orson Welles SOT, Radio: You say the north is bullying the south. Iím afraid youíre missing the point. This isnít another battlefield of the civil war. The sides arenít the blue and the gray. They are the right and the wrong.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Who would have guessed that the blinding of a heroic veteran would be the beginning of the end of Jim Crow in America?
Isaac Heading Home
Newsreel SOT: Going home ó thatís the sweetest words a GIs ever heard. Back to the good old USA where just the formality of mustering out, and then home sweet home.
Narrator: For the GIs discharged just hours earlier, the wait inside the greyhound bus terminal was excruciating. †They were on the final leg of a journey that had taken them halfway around the world and back. Freedom was so close they could nearly taste it.
Laura Williams, Woodardís great-niece: The soldiers that were there, they had to have been jubilant and proud. Happy to return home, on your soil. So, it had to have been just an exciting time for all of them to go home and see their families, finally.
Narrator: On the eight oíclock Augusta to Columbia coach that night was sergeant Isaac Woodard, heading home to Winnsboro, South Carolina, to see his wife for the first time in several years. Woodard was still in uniform, carrying a battle star for bravery under fire, and a final paycheck from the US army in the extraordinary sum of $695. Enough to start the kind of life he hadnít dared dream of before the war.
Like the other 900,000 African American soldiers returning home from duty, Isaac Woodard had come to see this bright new future as his due.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: African Americans had fought in all of the major wars in American history, and there's always been this theme of if we fight and we show our loyalty, then we are going to advance and be recognized as more equal citizens, and that dream had always been frustrated. But world war ii was actually quite different from past wars for African Americans because it was a special kind of war.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: This war, this particular war, crystalizes around the idea of this fight against fascism, and that means that it is a fight against inequality, of suppressing groups of people because of their race. So you have black soldiers coming home, having been inculcated with the idea that America stands for something different than fascism, something different than racial and ethnic discrimination. Something better.
Narrator: By 10 o'clock on that February evening, Isaac Woodard was little more than an hour away from his homecoming in Winnsboro.
Rawn James, Author: The atmosphere on the bus is jovial, filled with the relief that soldiers feel after surviving 15 months at war. Black soldiers and white soldiers are talking together, joking together. Eventually a bottle of whiskey gets opened and passed around.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: There were a few non-soldiers on the bus and they were very uncomfortable with the interaction between the white and black soldiers. There were complaints to the bus driver and the bus driver didn't like it.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: There are, of course in 1946, no bathroom facilities on public buses. Isaac Woodard asked the bus driver, um, if at the next stop he could be allowed to disembark and to go to the bathroom.
Rawn James, Author: And the bus driver tells him: ìboy, go sit back down.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: The bus driver cursed him. Isaac Woodard cursed him back. And proclaimed his manhood.
Laura Williams, Woodard's great-niece: He just said to the gentleman, you know, you don't have to speak to me in that manner, Iím a man just like you. In other words, give me respect.
Rawn James, Author: Military training and service turned a black man from the rural deep south with a fifth grade education into a man willing to say words that he knew could put his life at risk. There is no doubt when he said that, that he was under any illusions about what he was saying, where he was saying it ó on a bus at night, in the deep south. But he was a veteran. He was wearing the uniform. He was surrounded by veterans who were wearing the uniforms. They were returning from a war that they had won. And he was a stronger man because of it.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The bus driver is furious. At the next town he goes looking for a police officer to have Woodard removed from his bus.
Woodard's kind of perplexed. He steps off the bus and as he's trying to explain himself, the police chief brings out his blackjack, which is like a baton, but it's spring-loaded and it, it has tremendous force, and hits Woodard over the head with it.
Narrator: A soldier aboard the bus watched as the officer took Woodard by the arm and forced him around the corner and out of sight. "That is the last I saw of him " he would tell investigators a few months later.
Robert Young, Woodardís nephew: They started beating him all across the head. And they gouge his eyes out. They didn't beat them out. They put the stick in there and twisted it. They threw him in jail and he told me they poured whiskey over him to say he was drunk. He was arrested for, supposedly, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and being drunk. He was not drunk. He was not being disorderly. And he did not disturb the peace.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: He spends the night in jail, unable to see. In excruciating pain. The next morning he is taken to the judge. He is levied a fine, but he can't see to sign the paperwork that is put before him.
Ultimately, when Woodard is examined by specialists they determine that he will never see again. The injuries are severe and they are irreversible. He will be blind for life.
Robert Young, Woodardís nephew: You spend 42 months in the military, overseas in the Philippines and you come home to this. How can you just gouge someone's eyes out? Anybody how can...you can't do that. And it hurts me to even think about it, but it happened. Itís sad. Well, that was, Iíd say, a part of ignorance. You know, that's the bottom line, plain ignorance.
Violence Against Veterans
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: As world war II ended, 900,000 African American veterans returned to America—75% of them to the south, most of them to the rural south.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: The war took black soldiers out of communities where they had to adhere to a certain set of social norms in which they were subservient and opened up possibilities.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Even a segregated army gave chances for training and leadership, and advancement and recognition. Those in Europe had been treated very respectfully. And for the first time in their lives, the color of their skin was not the predominant characteristic to which they were identified. They came home feeling like they had done their duty in defense of American democracy and liberty.
But when they returned home, they largely saw nothing had changed. White southerners of that era considered the returning soldiers to be potential trouble, not great American citizens. As some would say, they no longer knew their place.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Black soldiers were especially threatening to the racial mores that undermined segregation. Black soldiers were in uniform. They wore emblems of authority. They often carried themselves with a sense of authority that the enforcers of white supremacy found particularly threatening.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Wearing the uniform of the us military grants one the prerogatives of citizenship. And black men make no bones about the fact that they feel completely deserving of those prerogatives. And they become the target.
So, in 1946, what you see is one incident of racial violence after another.
Narrator: There was little recourse ó and little protection ó for the African American veterans victimized in the south. Investigating these hate crimes often fell to a small team of lawyers at the national association for the advancement of colored people, headed by Thurgood Marshall.
Patricia Sullivan, Historian: The NAACP is just inundated with cases of violence against black soldiers, wrongful court martials, massive riots, slaughter. And Thurgood Marshallís office had files from floor to ceiling of these cases.
Narrator: A harrowing new report landed in the NAACP legal office almost every week in 1946. One black army veteran was murdered on his front porch in Taylor county, Georgia. His offense had been casting a vote in the democratic primary.
A week later, 120 miles away, a black veteran was kidnapped by a lynch mob ó along with a friend and their two wives, one of them reportedly seven months pregnant. The four were shot roughly sixty times, at close range. Eyewitness accounts reported that the lynching party included local police officers.
Woodard Comes Forward
Narrator: In the middle of what Thurgood Marshall called that ìterribleî season of 1946,†Isaac Woodard walked into the New York City offices of NAACP head Walter White.
The 27-year-old South Carolina native struck white as polite and handsome, with the ramrod straight bearing of a soldier. "I saw you, Mr. White, when you visited my outfit in the pacific," he said. "I could see then."
Woodard then sat down and told the story of his blinding—in a sworn affidavit.
Isaac Woodard (VO): The policeman asked me, was I discharged? And when I said ìyes,î that was when he started beating me with a billy, hitting me across the top of the head. After that, I grabbed his billy, wrung it out of his hands. Another policeman came up and threw his gun on me and told me to drop the billy or heíd drop me, so I dropped the billy. He knocked me unconscious. He hollered ìget up!î When I started to get up, he started punching me in the eyes with the end of his billy.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: The NAACP officials, they were moved by this, like everyone was moved, by just the tragedy of it. In addition, the NAACP leadership was always on the lookout for cases of injustice that they could use to really dramatize the nature of the southern racial system ó†for African Americans around the country, to get them to support the NAACP's work, and for white people to make them understand what's really going on.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Once Walter White gets ahold of Isaac Woodardís story, he is on fire. He is looking for ways to publicize this story and he's looking for the biggest platform out there.
Enter Orson Welles
Orson Welles SOT: How do you do ladies and gentlemen. This is Orson Welles.
Narrator: White and his new press agent reached out to one of the nationís great dramatists ó the boy wonder of stage and cinema: 31-year-old Orson Welles.
In the summer of 1946, Welles was hosting a radio show that broadcast nationally every Sunday.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: NAACP goes to him and says, we need your help to share this story. The story fascinated him, particularly the whodunnit quality. No one knew who this police officer was.
Orson Welles SOT: Now it seems the officer of the law who blinded the young negro boy in the affidavit has not been named. ëtil we know more about him, for just now, weíll call the policeman officer x. Officer x, Iím talking to you.†We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy, it will be brief. Youíre going to be uncovered!
Narrator: Welles came back to the Woodard story the next week, and the week after; drawing more listeners each episode. But there were holes in the story. Three weeks into the radio broadcasts, there were still no real leads about Woodardís assailant, or even about the town where Woodard had been pulled from the bus. The NAACP legal team was getting nervous.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Marshall says we gotta get this right. We've got our friends out on a limb on this thing. Orson Welles hires private investigators to go throughout the bus route to figure out where this happened. And the NAACP's national office has its lawyers searching these communities asking does anyone know this story.
Arriving in, unsolicited, in the national office is a letter from a black soldier who says ìi heard on the radio about the blinding of Sergeant Woodard. I was on the bus. It was Batesburg."
Orson Welles SOT: I have before me wires and press releases to the effect that a policeman of Batesburg, a man by the name of Shull. Has admitted that he was the police officer who blinded Isaac Woodard.
Officer x, we know your name now. Now that we found you out, weíll never lose you. You canít get rid of me. We have an appointment.
Narrator: The Welles broadcast had put the story in the headlines, and a whirlwind began to swirl around Isaac Woodard.
When word got out that the army had denied the young sergeant full disability benefits ó on the grounds that he was blinded a few hours after his discharge, luminaries from New Yorkís black community organized a benefit concert on his behalf.
Headlined by some of the biggest names in music, stars from Billie Holliday to Woody Guthrie turned up at Lewisohn stadium in Harlem to raise money for "the blind GI."
Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, hero of black America, stepped forward to co-chair the event.
Robert Young, Woodard's nephew: Joe louis sent a limousine to our house in the Bronx. I was 11 years old. That excited me.
Narrator: Seated beside his mother, Isaac Woodard, a young man from tiny Winnsboro, South Carolina, was awestruck to learn that nearly 20,000 people had gathered in his honor. Ten thousand more were turned away.
The crowd had been drawn by the all-star performances, but it was Isaac Woodard who turned out to be the headliner.
One Reporter: noted that applause lasted for five minutes after Isaac Woodard took the stage.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: He spoke a very low voice and people had to go be completely silent to hear him, but it was a powerful account of what happened.
Isaac Woodard (VO): I spent three and a half years in service of my country and thought I would be treated as a man when I returned to civilian life but I was mistaken. If the loss of my sight will make people in America get together to prevent what happened to me from ever happening again to any other person, I would be glad.
Narrator: The benefit concert netted more than $10,000 for Isaac Woodard—enough to buy a house, but little else. One NAACP staffer noted: though Woodard was "riding" high now, "in 10 years no one will remember" his name.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The NAACP basically adopts a plan to make Isaac Woodard the centerpiece of a campaign for the promotion of the civil rights of all returning veterans.
He goes on a multi-city nationwide speaking tour that gathers huge crowds all across the country. It's hard to imagine how many other black men would have been as well known in America in 1946 and 1947, than Isaac Woodard.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: So many victims of southern violence are not alive. Their bullet-ridden corpses are in a grave somewhere, but he's alive to talk about his story.
Laura Williams, Woodardís great-niece:
My dad told me he remembers when the mailman would arrive daily, he would have a huge duffel bag that he would carry and the letters would just pour out onto the floor.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: How does Isaac Woodard negotiate this new world that he's in. Heís blinded, he's got to figure out how to support himself and also being called upon to be a symbol, where he didn't want to be a symbol. He just was expecting to be discharged from the army and go back to his family.
Orson Welles SOT: The blind soldier fought for me in this war. The least i can do now is fight for him. I have eyes. He hasn't. I was born a white man. And until a colored man is a full citizen, like me, i havenít the leisure to enjoy the freedom that colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I donít own what I have until he owns an equal share of it. Until somebody beats me and blinds me, I am in his debt.
Fighting for Justice
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The Welles broadcast generated huge attention. The NAACP built on that and civil rights groups around the country were writing letters demanding for the prosecution of this police officer for the beating and blinding of Sergeant Woodard
Kari Frederickson, Historian: In terms of getting justice for Isaac Woodard, it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: There are no prosecutions of white police officers by the federal government for excessive force. They're getting 1000 to 2000 complaints a year, and they're essentially not doing much.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Everybody understood that southern state governments did not protect against violence. In fact, local officials were often the purveyors of violence. So, there'd been calls and calls and calls on the federal government to take some kind of action.†But†the department of justice had largely been unwilling to step up to that task.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The justice department had endless explanations about why it simply wasn't possible to do this. You had all white juries, all white grand juries. Why are they all white? Because African Americans are disenfranchised. And getting a conviction against a white police officer is not realistic. It's not going to happen in the south.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Thereís this part of it that is about treating the south as though it is some peculiar, unique, hothouse flower that has to be handled carefully. And that, that, that you kind of didnít try to interfere with something that was regarded as kind of cultural, and this really comes out of the idea that southern mores were sufficiently different, that it would do you no good to try to interfere with them.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: What the NAACP can do is try to channel righteous outrage, try to shine a light on this incredibly heinous incident and perhaps go above the head of local law enforcement to Washington to prick the conscience of the president. And that perhaps through the powers of the presidency, some change can come to the south.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: There'd been a long tradition of black leaders meeting with presidents of the united states. But, there's a lot of suspicion of Truman. You know how liberal is he? How sympathetic to the NAACP is he going to be? Nothing in Trumanís background would lead one to believe that he would act differently than the presidents before him.
Narrator: Civil rights leaders had good reason to regard Harry Truman as an unlikely champion of black Americans. He had grown up in Independence, Missouri, a town that still celebrated its confederate heritage. Trumanís grandparents on both sides were rebel partisans and slaveowners.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Harry Truman's mother thought John Wilkes Booth was an American hero. She refused to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom in the white house.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: He grew up in a household where belief in white supremacy was simply in the air. People used racial epithets very casually and he continued to use them well into his adult life.
Narrator: Despite his background, President Truman was willing to listen to the concerns of civil rights advocates. On September 19, 1946, Truman invited Walter White and a delegation of religious and labor leaders for a meeting in the oval office.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The meeting begins and the civil rights leaders are asking the president to pass legislation prohibiting lynching in America. Harry Truman says to the leaders, i understand your concerns, but there's not the will in this country for new legislation.
Walter White is listening to this discussion. And he realizes that Harry Truman doesn't get it. He stops the discussion and says, Mr. President, I need to tell you the story of the blinding of Isaac Woodard.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: People like Harry Truman need to be woken up. That was part of the NAACP's job, was to wake people up to injustices that they tolerated, that they ignored, that they were complicit in, and to make them see it.
Rawn James, Author: Harry Truman, decades earlier, after world war i had been a returning veteran. A white returning veteran, to be sure, but the idea that a war veteran wearing his uniform could be pulled off a bus and attacked and beaten by law enforcement officers, surprised Truman and enraged him.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Truman became red-faced, extremely agitated, jaw clenched, and then turns to his staff and says, "my god, I didn't know it was as terrible as this. We have got to do something."
Narrator: The next day, the president fired off a letter to his attorney general, referencing Isaac Woodard and insisting it would ìrequire the inauguration of some sort of policy to prevent such happenings.î
Five days later, at Trumanís insistence, the attorney general ordered federal prosecutors in South Carolina to initiate criminal proceedings against police chief Lynwood Shull.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: This is unprecedented, for the President of the United States to involve himself in what white southerners see as a local matter.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: This was a way of life for them. They thought it was perfectly normal for a southern sheriff to get away with blinding a black man. And so the mere fact of the federal governmentís attention, and engagement demonstrated that someone was watching. It demonstrated that perhaps the south would not be treated as this peculiar region that we won't touch. It was very, very powerful.
Narrator: President Trumanís resolve to hold Chief Shull accountable was met with predictable resistance, even by the us attorney in charge of the case.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: It is greeted in South Carolina with shock, anger, revulsion, in the white political leadership. The us attorney for South Carolina wanted no part of this case. The justice department makes it very clear, this is not a matter of debate, this is an order. You are to bring this case.
Trial of Shull
Narrator: When Isaac Woodard returned to South Carolina for the trial, the NAACP dispatched Franklin Williams, one of their finest attorneys, to accompany him.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: The NAACP sends Franklin Williams to travel with Isaac Woodard for several reasons: he's blind, he needed somebody to navigate around and also they fundamentally don't trust the department of justice.
Gilbert King, Author: Franklin Williams recognizes that the object of this entire thing was to make it almost like a culture war. It was going to be the southern way of life versus these northern activists and intruders trying to dictate their way of life on the south
Narrator: Williams offered plenty of assistance to the prosecution at their first and only meeting, less than twenty-four hours before the start of the trial. He had a list of possible witnesses, including bus passengers who had seen Lynnwood Shullís first unprovoked blows to Woodardís head.
He also had at the ready a report by NAACP investigators detailing Shullís history of violence against the black citizens in Batesburg.
But the prosecution waved him off.
On the morning of November 5th, 1946, the courtroom in Columbia was tense and segregated. Shullís supporters occupied one section of the gallery, determined to witness the repudiation of a federal government gone too far; a delegation of anxious black college students took up the other half, hoping to catch the first glimmers of a sea change in southern justice.
A hush fell over the room as Judge J. Waties Waring called the trial to order.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: J. Waties Waring was an eighth-generation Charlestonian. His father was a confederate veteran, multiple generations of his family were slaveholders. He was no advocate for civil rights. And he, frankly, early on when he got assigned this case, he had a lot of doubts about the appropriateness of the federal government to prosecute a police officer.
Narrator: Judge Waring, like most in South Carolinaís political class, harbored plenty of suspicions about federal intervention in this case: chiefly that President Truman was motivated more by the coming midterms than a concern for justice.
But Waringís skepticism began unraveling as soon as Isaac Woodard rose to testify.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Heís wearing a brown suit. He has sunglasses. He has to be guided to the witness chair by court personnel. And he then begins on the direct examination to describe what happened, and the story is just completely credible. Waring knows itís true.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Waring is face to face with this man who, who bears on his body†the scars of southern racism. He cannot look away from this walking, talking tragedy of injustice.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The crux of the case is whether excessive and unnecessary force was used in regard to Isaac Woodard.† The police chief claimed i only hit him once,†i don't know how he got blinded. But, how do you crush the globes of both eyes with one strike?
Narrator: The government finished presenting its case against Shull after just an hour and twenty-five minutes. The prosecutors had not called witnesses who had seen the attack unfold, or presented any evidence about Chief Shullís pattern of violence against the black citizens of Batesburg.
As the prosecution rested, Franklin Williams sat in the courtroom, furiously scrawling notes.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: It was going to be a difficult case to win, but even given that, the department of justice acted with incompetence. They failed to call key witnesses. They let the defense lawyers examine the jury pool and asked them whether theyíd been members ó†all these white people ó asked them whether they'd been members of the NAACP. I mean they never asked them whether they'd been members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were just sort of incompetent from top to bottom. There's a reason for that. This is not a case that the justice department wanted to bring and at trial, they showed that their heart was not in it.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Judge Waring was horrified that he was made part of this travesty. He sends the jury out to deliberate, and he tells his assistant united states marshal, "Iíll be back in a few minutes. And the bewildered marshal says, ìyour honor, you can't leave. This jury is going to be back in five minutes.î He says, ìthey're not coming back in five minutes because i won't be here.î He was not going†to allow a jury to do a five minute verdict, which he thought would just be the capstone of a great injustice. That part he controlled,
and he made them sit in that room and stew in their juices until he got back.
Judge Waring walks down main street to the state capitol, and when he comes back, 25 minutes later, they're banging on that door. They've been banging on it for 20 minutes and they come out and they announce the acquittal of Lynwood Shull.
Narrator: An exhausted Isaac Woodard had already retreated back to his hotel when he received the news. He wept, then collected himself and stepped outside to face Reporter:s. ìIím not mad at anybody,î he told them. ìi just feel bad. Thatís all. I just feel bad.î
Narrator: Inside the courthouse, Judge Waring hastily packed up his briefcase and then hurried to meet his wife, Elizabeth, who he found badly shaken.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: She had attended the trial. And she found the facts of the case astonishing, cruel, vicious. When the jury came back and acquitted Shull, no one noticed that she slipped out of the back of the courtroom in tears.
Belinda Gergel, Author: She was profoundly moved by the testimony of Isaac Woodard about what had happened to him at the hands of Chief Shull. She said she had never seen, never appreciated, never understood that these sorts of things could happen.
Narrator: Elizabeth Avery Waring was from a well-to-do family in Michigan and had only come south late in life. Like Waties, she had never paid much attention to the racial caste system in and around Charleston.
Charleston archive SOT: Charleston, a gracious old city where memories and traditions live and thrive in a congenial air. Everywhere is an old time, almost an old world charm and quaintness. And everywhere of course, the negroes. The real negro quarters in Charleston may not boast classic colonial architecture in all its flower, but it has a quaintness all its own.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: The southern system of segregation wasn't just some benign system that whites and blacks acceded to and everybody was happy.
it was a violent system. It was based on violence. If you got out of line, there was violent repression, and Woodard exemplified that. You know for someone like Waring, he'd spent his whole life ignoring that.
Narrator: :I couldnít take it, at first," Waring would later admit. ì "used to say it couldnít be true...you grow up in it and the moss gets in your eyes. You learn to rationalize away the evil and filth and you see magnolias instead.î
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: There is a willful blindness, frankly, among most white people about the truth of racism and white supremacy in this country. There is some ignorance because, of course, we live very segregated lives, but itís right to say how could he possibly not have known? He could not have known because to be a comfortable middle-class white person in this country generally involves refusing to see what is hiding in plain sight.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The trial shattered their illusion about the benign nature of southern life and once shattered, where do they go? There was just no tolerance in southern society of that day, to any honest discussion about race. Any questioning of Jim Crow was viewed by the segregationists as an existential threat.
Belinda Gergel, Author: There was no course on this. They certainly didn't know of anyone in Charleston that could help them better understand, so the two of them begin a series of studies on race relations in the south.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: They take in books every night, they read them and then they have sessions after dinner where they ask each other questions, and they basically create their own personal seminar to try to understand racism in America.
Narrator: The Warings started with two groundbreaking new works that examined the origins and the impact of white supremacy in the south: W.J. cashís book, the mind of the south and Gunnar Myrdalís an American dilemma. Both books destroyed the comforting story white southerners liked to tell themselves: that slavery and Jim Crow had always been paternal institutions and that the ìnegroî had long lived under the protections of a benevolent master race.
Both made plain that white moderates, like Waring himself, were complicit in this racist, violent system.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: These are important books, they're complicated books, they're challenging books. Judge Waring described them as tough medicine for him.
Belinda Gergel, Author: They rode through different neighborhoods and began to see the different ways that white Charlestonians and black Charlestonians experienced life in the city. As they began to read and understand and question all that they've thought about race in the past, it becomes clear to both of them that the road ahead is going to be a rocky road, but that this just may be the road that they are uniquely prepared to follow.
Narrator: looking askance at Charleston society wasnít such a great leap for either of the Warings, who had been increasingly feeling like outsiders in their own hometown. Just the previous year, Judge Waring had scandalized his friends and neighbors by abruptly announcing to his first wife, Annie, that heíd fallen in love with their bridge partner, Elizabeth.
Divorce was not only frowned upon in South Carolina; it was illegal. But Waring devised a plan to send Annie to Florida, where she could legally petition for divorce. A week after the dissolution of his marriage to Annie, Waties and Elizabeth were wed.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Their friends in Charleston ó weíre talking about a couple of hundred people, the sort of social set in Charleston ó they blame Elizabeth for the breakup of the marriage.
Narrator: Elizabeth, a northerner now on her third marriage, was an easy target for Charlestonís society dames, who branded her a "floozie" and told their children, "you may be polite if the new mrs. Waring speaks to you, but never address her." The judge noted that even his oldest friends crossed the street to avoid him.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: They clearly were surprised by their treatment because they both had been very engaged in the social life in Charleston and having been read out of Charleston's high society. He was prepared to look more critically at the world in which he had previously lived and accepted unquestionably.
Narrator: By the end of 1946, a racial reckoning in the united states seemed inevitable. Like the Warings, President Harry Truman felt called to respond to the blinding of Isaac Woodard and the mockery it made of the principles America had just defended in a long and brutal war.
But political forces had left Truman with limited power to take action against white supremacy. On the same day Woodardís assailant walked free, November 5th, 1946, the president absorbed a stunning repudiation at the polls. Democrats lost both the house and the senate for the first time in a generation.
Forcing the question of civil rights, Truman understood, was likely to weaken the party further.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Harry Truman has to deal with political realities, and the realities are that the democratic party is an unwieldy coalition: including white southerners, who are staunchly segregationist and supporters of white supremacy, and this new and growing group of African American voters. Truman knows that any move that he makes on civil rights, he risks alienating southern white democrats.
But at this moment, when he sees a representative of the united states, a soldier in uniform, Isaac Woodard, who is maimed ó†it sounds simplistic, but i think something just kind of clicks in him, that this simply cannot stand. We hold ourselves up as the beacon of democracy, we hold ourselves up as moral leaders. Moral leaders do not blind their own servicemen.
Narrator: On December 5th, 1946, one month after the acquittal of Isaac Woodardís attacker, Harry Truman signed an executive order establishing the presidentís committee on civil rights.
The president charged his new committee with laying bare hard truths about the intimidation and violence used to enforce racial segregation, and with recommending concrete measures to ìsafeguardî the rights of every American, regardless of race, creed or religion.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Harry Truman is a politician, and political considerations are never far from the ambit of a politician's decisions, but there were certain actions he took which could not be explained on the basis of political advantage. He appointed the president's committee on civil rights, i think, probably more for moral reasons than anything else. He saw injustice. He was outraged by it. He thought that he should do something. And given Trumanís background, it undoubtedly was a surprise to civil rights advocates
Rawn James, Author: Truman said many things that were absolutely racist and indefensible. They were what we would consider of the time for a white man from Missouri. Truman saw no contradiction between these personal views and what he saw as America's legal obligations to its citizens. That it does not matter what you personally feel, whom you would have to your home for dinner, whom you would have a glass of bourbon with at the end of the day. What matters is that these people have rights under the constitution because this is the united states of America.
Truman's NAACP Keynote
Narrator: On a brutally hot, humid day at the end of June, 1947 an audience of ten thousand—many of them African-American—gathered on the capitol mall, in a state of high anticipation.
Harry Truman was about to do what no united states president had ever done.
He had accepted an invitation from Walter White to address the annual convention of the NAACP, at the base of the Lincoln memorial.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The NAACP was considered a radical organization. Some southern politicians considered it a communist front organization. I mean, if you were a member of the NAACP in the south and you were a school teacher, you were probably going to get fired. And to have Harry Truman go in front and speak to the NAACP was a remarkable moment.
He had multiple drafts of the speech done. He was editing it himself and he wrote a letter to his sister and he says, "Iím getting ready to give a speech that mama isn't going to like.î
President Truman SOT: Mrs. Roosevelt, Senator Morris, distinguished guests, ladies & gentlemen. I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom.
It is more important today than ever before to ensure that all Americans enjoy these rights.
When I say all Americans I mean all Americans.
Rawn James, Author: The theme can be summed up in two words that Truman used several times in the speech, which was only twelve minutes long. And those two words are ìall Americans.î He kept repeating the phrase, ìall Americans.î
President Truman SOT: There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry, or religion, or race, or color. We cannot any longer await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community. Our national government must show the way.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: It was a stunning speech. And when he sat down, Walter White, sitting next to him, is in disbelief. And he said, uh, "Mr. President, I just, I can't believe what you just said.î And he said, "Walter, I meant every word of it."
Warings Dive into The Civil Rights Fray
Narrator: Judge J. Waties Waring had become increasingly convinced that a bitter fight over racism was coming to South Carolina.
He would later remember that he was faced with two choices: ìeither you were going to be governed by the white supremacy doctrine and just shut your eyes and bowl this thing through, or you were going to be a federal judge and decide the law. That was the issue.î
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: A judge doesn't normally go and pick his cases, but Judge Waring tells his clerk, ìkeep an eye open for new civil rights cases. Let me know when they have occurred.î
Narrator: That evening, Waties told Elizabeth about an explosive new case he was considering for his trial docket.
The case, Elmore v. Rice, had originated when George Elmore, a prosperous black businessman, had been told by the South Carolina democratic party that he was ineligible to vote in the upcoming primary. Denying Elmore the right to vote was in direct violation of the supreme courtís 1944 ruling in smith v. Allwright, which banned the whites only primary.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: When you win a supreme court case like that, what is supposed to happen is everyone is supposed to comply with the judgment of the court. South Carolina doesnít. The South Carolina democratic party says, well. You know, that may be what the supreme court said but they mustíve been talking to Texas. They couldnítíve been talking to us.
Narrator: South Carolinaís segregationist democrats adopted the strategy of willful ignorance for a reason. The black population in South Carolina stood at roughly 40 percent, second only to Mississippiís. And that was a lot of potential voters who might start demanding equal rights.
So even though the supreme court had left no wiggle room in striking down the all-white primary, the white power structure in the state executed a spectacular end run around the ruling.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: It repealed every law on the books relating to the primary and then claimed the 14th amendment did not apply to the democratic party of South Carolina, because there was no state action. This was a private club having an election.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Voting is really the lynchpin of the rest of the system. Whites have to be in power to control the mechanisms of the state. To do that, they have to suppress black voting. So, Elmore, for judge Waring, is going to involve a direct challenge to the system of southern repression, domination, and segregation, unlike almost all of the cases that came before it.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: So Judge Waring said to Elizabeth, ìI need to tell you Iíve taken this case. And we, up to this point, we've been doing this kind of privately. We haven't really been discussing our views with others. But if I rule for Mr. Elmore, our lives will never be the same.î
Belinda Gergel, Author: And Elizabeth looked at him and said, ìyou go for it. It's the right thing to do. I will be with you every step of the way.î
Elmore v. Rice trial
Narrator: In June of 1947, J. Waties Waring headed back to the same courtroom where Isaac Woodardís testimony had so shaken him just eight months earlier. This time to hear Elmore v. Rice.
Representing George Elmore were the NAACPís top attorneys, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter.
In court, attorneys for the South Carolina democrats expounded their novel argument: the democratic party was a private club, and enjoyed the right to restrict its membership as it saw fit. The federal court had no more business directing their elections than it did directing a ladies sewing circle.
Judge Waring was not impressed.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: If you are a judge, and a judge whoís now awakening to the reality of white supremacy and racial discrimination, as Waties Waring is, you understand that this case actually constitutes an opportunity to talk about the role of the supreme court in relationship to southern states, the way in which political power is harnessed and controlled as part of white supremacy, and as a way to talk about what the power of local judges are to stop white supremacists in the south from carrying out their plans.
Narrator: Waring issued his ruling on July 12, 1947, just two weeks after Trumanís appearance at the national convention of the NAACP. He found for Elmore, quoting directly from Trumanís speech: ìwe can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination. We cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community.î
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: He says, it's a joke. It's a ridiculous argument. Private clubs do not elect the President of the United States. And he finished the order with a resounding call for his South Carolinians: he said, ìit is time for South Carolina to rejoin the union and to adopt the American way of conducting elections.î
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: There was no effort to uphold the nobility of southern white supremacy, right? Heís calling it out for what it is.
For judge Waring, standing as a figure alone in a deeply entrenched southern community, it is his farewell. Itís his farewell to the society in which he grew up and it marks an articulation of his decision to go it alone with his wife in that community.
The Dixiecrat Revolt
Newsreel SOT: The southern revolt against President Truman reaches its climax at Birmingham, under the statesí rights banner. More than six thousand flock to the rump convention to select the presidential ticket. Thirteen southern states are represented in the uproarious session which precedes the nomination of governors Thurmond, of South Carolina, and fielding wright of Mississippi as party standard bearers.
Narrator: By the time the next election season arrived, a huge swath of southern democrats had had enough of what they called "federal intrusion."
Segregationists had held sway in local politics for decades, and they didnít intend to be pushed around by the united states supreme court, or federal district judges like J. Waties Waring, or even the president.
Newsreel SOT: Good-bye Harry, goodbye Harry!
Kenneth Mack, Historian: The 1948 democratic national convention, the Dixiecrats walk out over the civil rights plank prompted by President Truman's actions, originally, and Strom Thurmond runs as a presidential candidate on behalf of the Dixiecrats.
Strom Thurmond SOT: In the words of John Paul Jones ìwe have just begun to fight!î
Kari Frederickson, Historian: There are thousands of white people in attendance. The hall is decorated in red, white, and blue bunting. It is festooned with confederate flags. People are holding aloft pictures of Robert E. Lee. There's no question as to sort of the animating spirit of this group, which is to return the south to the past, to maintain the racial status quo, to maintain white supremacy.
Strom Thurmond SOT: It's another effort on the part of this president to dominate the country by force and to put into effect these uncalled for and these damnable proposals he has recommended under the guise of so-called civil rights. And i tell you the American people from one side to the other had better wake up and oppose such a program. And if they donít, the next thing will be a totalitarian state in these united states.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: The Dixiecrats, their goal is to be a spoiler, to deny either major party a majority of electoral college votes, thereby throwing the election into the house of representatives, where they can use their power to win concessions on civil rights.
Narrator: Truman didnít blink, and he didnít retreat. Nine days after the Dixiecrat revolt, he gave the states righters a little primer in presidential power. Truman signed an executive order desegregating the federal workforce and, more shockingly, the entirety of the united states armed forces.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Desegregating the military is something that Truman could do with a stroke of a pen. He does it because he's already seen the worst that southerners are going to do, right? They've already staged a revolt. So why not go all in?
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: A lifelong friend writes him a letter and says, Harry, get off this civil rights thing. If you don't do it, you're going to lose the election. Truman writes him a letter back: it says, you don't know what i know." he then tells him the story of the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He mentions these other atrocities as well, and he says, "if i lose the election over this issue, it will have been for a good cause."
In that way, President Truman and Judge Waring are the same. Every instinct of political survival should have told both of them to keep their hand off the hotspot of the oven. Both of them went to the hotspot.
Warings under attack
Narrator: As the 1948 primary approached, South Carolina democrats were brazenly evading Waringís decision in Elmore, allowing black South Carolinians to register to vote, only after they signed an oath declaring their opposition to racial integration.
Waring summoned nearly a hundred officials of the South Carolina democratic party and ordered them to register black citizens without swearing any oath.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: He tells them that a federal judge faced with contempt has two choices. He can impose a fine or a prison sentence. He says, ìif you violate my order again, there will be no fines.î The message that he was prepared to jail white men for depriving African Americans the right to vote, hit the white establishment like a thunderbolt.
Narrator: Threatening letters began arriving at the courthouse and at judge Waringís home soon after. Obscene calls came into his phone line so frequently that he was forced to disconnect his service.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: White southerners, as much as they despise African Americans and despise civil rights, they often level the most venom against people they think are traitors. And that would be Waring.
The Warings' New Friends
Narrator: The Warings lived their lives more and more on their own terms. Neighbors were particularly scandalized by the unlikely visitors that were seen calling at 61 meeting street.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: They became friendly with a number of African American activists. Septima Clark, who was a fiery advocate for civil rights, was very close with the Warings, was a frequent visitor in the house at a time that black people only entered the homes of white people through the back door as maids. Ruby cornwell the matriarch of the civil rights community in Charleston. She was a frequent visitor and a close friend. But perhaps the most interesting relationship that Judge Waring develops is a close, personal relationship with Walter White ó then the most important civil rights leader in America.
The Waring's just got to the point, they didn't care what other people thought. There's a very famous photograph of the Warings, featured in collier's magazine, that showed a dinner party at the Waringsí house. The article was titled, ìthe lonesomest man in townî, but he didn't look that lonesome. He had lots of friends at his dinner table. The only notable part was they were all African American.
Belinda Gergel, Author: They're socializing, they're laughing, they're enjoying each other's friendship as equals, and that was terrifying to white Charlestonians.
Narrator: Elizabethís willingness to flout the social conventions of Charleston society and her candor about southern racism brought unprecedented national attention to the wife of a sitting federal judge.
Belinda Gergel, Author: She found her voice and she put white Charlestonians on notice that that was going to be a voice that she would not hesitate to use. She was invited, one of the first women, to come on meet the press.
Meet the Press SOT:
Announcer: Tonight from Washington: meet the press, where you'll meet one of the outstanding personalities in today' s news, Mrs. J. Waties Waring, who stirred up a hornet's nest in the south by her vigorous attack on white supremacy.
Mary James Cottrell: Mrs. Waring, you charged in your speech before the YWCA group in Charleston that the whites down here are a sick, confused and decadent people and that like all decadent people, they are full of pride and complacency, introverted, morally weak and low. What brought you to this drastic conclusion?
Elizabeth Waring: Living there and observing them, a very deep study of the subject. Any people who enslave the minds and bodies of another people are bound to destroy their own souls.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: In ordinary circumstances, the spouse of a judge would not do what she did. But given the depth of the problem, the importance that somebody speak out, she felt as though she should.
Meet the press SOT:
May Craig: Are you crusading only for the negroís civil rights, such as the freedom to vote, freedom or safety of his person and freedom from lynching and so forth, or are you for social integration, is that what you want too?
Elizabeth Waring: I want the whole thing, i want him to go through the same door, and so does the judge. I want him to be an equal citizen.
Warings under attack
Narrator: Reaction in South Carolina was swift and predictable. State legislators appropriated $10,000 to fund impeachment of the judge. Then resolved to purchase railroad tickets for the Warings, anywhere they desired, as long as it was out of the state with no-return. Two men were seen burning a Ku Klux Klan cross in the Waringsí back garden.
And on a quiet evening, while the Warings were home playing canasta in their drawing room, three shots rang out in front of their home.
Belinda Gergel, Author: Their home is right on the street and theyíre inside and suddenly two big bricks come through the window. They donít know if people are coming through the window and through the doors next. But theyíre petrified.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: They retreat to their dining room where theyíre hiding behind a wall, believing that they are under fire and within days the united states attorney general provided 24-hour us marshal protection. Literally marshals sleeping out in front of his house, throughout the rest of his service as a United States district judge. No federal judge had ever faced such an attack.
Narrator: The judge, seventy years-old and under constant siege, understood his days on the bench were numbered.
He confided in Elizabeth that he meant to do one big thing before he retired. With her support, he fixed his sights on destroying the precedent that had underpinned legalized racism in the south for more than fifty years: the strange doctrine of separate but equal.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: They are disgusted by the people who have been their friends and who have sat idly by and and benefited from this oppressive system. And they simply can't take it anymore. And he is now in this position where he can do something about it
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: What the record now shows us, at the time in which the most intense pressure was being put on judge Waring, he was making the plans of what would become the Briggs v. Elliott dissent ó the case that changes America.
Archive SOT: This is South Carolina. Summerton, South Carolina. A country crossroads in the rich soil, isolated in time and space and given to old ways. Here, perhaps more than elsewhere in the united states, the racial patterns, the social patterns, and the economic patterns are all the same pattern.
Narrator: Briggs versus Elliott—the case that would set in motion the demise of legalized segregation -- grew from the unlikeliest soil in the nation. Clarendon county, just ninety odd miles from where Isaac Woodard had been beaten, was a place well known to judge Waring.
ìitís in what we call the low country,î he said of clarendon. ìswamp lands and rivers. One of the most backward counties of the state... The negro schools were just tumbledown, dirty shacks with horrible outdoor toilet facilities.î
J. A. Delaine Jr., son of Rev. Delaine: I lived in Summerton and I cursed the day I was born and had to live there. And I vowed that†when I got grown Iíd never see that damn place again.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: They have talked about us as being subhuman. I guess, from generation to generation, they couldn't accept the fact that Iím human just, just like them. Just like them.
J. A. Delaine Jr., son of Rev. Delaine: Most of the schools operated for three to four months out of the year. And the reason for that was these kids need to be in, in the fields, plowing cotton or whatever. So we can't have school when they need to work to get our cotton out of the fields.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: Some of the kids in my class didn't show up till around thanksgiving. Instead of being in school they was out working the farm. Come early april these kids are out of the school, going back to the farm to work. And the system really didn't care. It was not meant for us as black folks, but two things: go in somebody's kitchen, or go in somebodyís fields. That happened to us a hundred years or more. That's what was geared for us to do. They didnít expect no more from you.
Narrator: In 1947, local parents in clarendon county decided to do something about the problem of simply getting their children to school. There was a fleet of buses for the white children in the county. None for the black children.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Some of the black children in their community have to walk nine miles to school. They have to ford a river.
Narrator: A group of Summerton parents were able to raise several hundred dollars to buy a used school bus, but the bus broke down constantly. So the parents turned to the Reverend J.A. Delaine, a principal and minister with ties to the NAACP.
J. A. Delaine Jr., son of Rev. Delaine: He suggested, we'll go in and we'll talk to the superintendent of schools about getting funds for gas money, repair the bus, and pay a salary to who drives the bus. It was turned down. ìain't got no money for your niggers,î literally is what they, what he was told.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: It was told that black folks didn't pay enough taxes. You couldn't even vote. So there was no black folks on the school board to direct and to address the issues that was at hand. So what power do you have?
J. A. Delaine Jr., son of Rev. Delaine: My father then said, well, you know, let's file a suit. I want to talk with Thurgood Marshall.
Thurgood Marshall is Coming
Narrator: Thurgood Marshall, the 40-year-old chief of the NAACP legal defense fund, reluctantly answered the summons from clarendon county.
All through the 1940s, Marshall had been making these trips from New York into the heart of the Jim Crow south.
He had been belittled by judges and opposing counsel who didnít think he could be an attorney, threatened with violence, and nearly lynched.
Rawn James, Author: White Americans who want to maintain segregation recognize that Thurgood Marshall and his legal team are becoming very effective at chipping away at that status quo. And that is why his life is in danger whenever he travels, particularly when he travels in the south.
Gilbert King, Author: They would have to move him around from house to house at night during a trial because the Klan was after him, and they didn't want these night riders to find out where Marshall was. He was threatened constantly. His life was always in danger, and he was terrified, too. But he also knew that it was important for the African American communities in those Jim Crow balconies to look down and see an African American who was not a defendant, who was in a suit, who was arguing the law with white men.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: It was often an electric experience for local African American communities to see Thurgood Marshall come to town because he would do something that nobody had ever seen before which was to address white people and to make them answer and state reasons for what they were doing and to sometimes call them liars.
Narrator: Marshall leveled with the reverend delaine and the parents of clarendon county. If the NAACP was going to take on their case, it was going to be about more than a school bus. He wanted to sue for total equality with the white schools. Facilities, teacher salaries, textbooks, buses ó every resource the white schools had, they would demand in equal measure for the black schools.
Marshall explained he wouldnít even consider taking the case until he had twenty reliable, credible plaintiffs. People who would not cower in the face of certain intimidation from the white supremacists who ruled clarendon county.
More than twenty black citizens agreed to sign on.
Narrator: On November 17, 1950, Thurgood Marshall hurried along Charlestonís palmetto-lined streets for a pre-trial hearing with judge Waring, unaware that the judge had been closely following events in Summerton.
Neither man harbored any doubts about the strength of Marshallís case: the NAACP was clearly poised to win equal facilities for the black children of clarendon county.
Rawn James, Author: The schools for white children were generally the best schools that the tax base could establish and support. The schools for black children, even in some middle-class school districts, mocked the very notion of being schools. They were visibly unequal to the naked eye. One did not even need to step inside to see how unequal they were.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: When Marshall arrives at the courthouse, he is told by court personnel, Judge Waring wants to see you in his chambers. Lawyers call this ex parte communication. It happened. Judge Waring says to Marshall, ìi don't want to try any more equalization cases. Bring me a frontal challenge to segregation.î
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Thurgood Marshall is absolutely floored when Waring, essentially, tells him look, i need you to make this case, get rid of segregation altogether. He basically tells Marshall, look, you need to go for broke here.
Narrator: Thurgood Marshall had dedicated much of his life to overturning legalized segregation. But he was playing the long game, executing a strategy he had helped to devise fifteen years earlier.
Segregation had been sanctioned by an 1896 supreme court decision in a case called Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy, a black man from New Orleans, had challenged the segregated accommodations of Louisianaís railroads and lost 8-1.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Plessy v. Ferguson came to be seen as symbolic of the idea of separate but equal, that segregation was not unconstitutional as long as blacks and whites were given equal facilities.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The NAACP had adopted this strategy, which is basically turning Plessy v. Ferguson on its head.
Rawn James, Author: It's a kind of sailing west to arrive east. Rather than argue against the scourge of Plessy, they argued for the fulfillment of Plessy ó that the constitution is not being satisfied, not because the facilities are segregated, but because they're unequal.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: They were winning cases, but the strategy had controversy because every time you use Plessy to support your theory, you were driving another nail into the inferior legal status of African Americans.
Rawn James, Author: The question that faced Marshall was, when do we move away from the equalization strategy, and begin to argue against segregation itself separate but equal is unconstitutional? And Marshall was rightly cautious about when and where to make that claim, because if he chose the wrong case and it went to the supreme court, the worst thing that could happen for black Americans across the country would be for the supreme court to ratify Plessy v. Ferguson ó to confirm it in a new age and say, yes, this is still the law of the land and it satisfies the constitution.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: What Judge Waring was pushing him to do was very risky. If you launched a concerted effort to overturn Plessy and failed, your years of all that work would have been thrown on the trash heap of history.
Thurgood Marshall says, "Judge, it's on our agenda. It's just not tonight. This is not the time. This is not the place." What he wasn't saying explicitly was this is the last place in the world we're going to try to desegregate the schools. This is down the end of the road, not the beginning. Judge Waring said, "This is the time. This is the case. You're gonna be challenging the constitutionality of a state law. You're going to lose, but youíll plant the case directly and automatically onto the docket of the us supreme court." And he said, "Thurgood, that's where you want to be."
Narrator: At Waringís urging, Marshall petitioned the court to dismiss the current case and bring a new suit, one alleging that segregation in South Carolinaís public schools was unconstitutional.
Marshall and his team spent the next month preparing a new case. But they also needed approval from the plaintiffs to move ahead.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Marshall was always very powerfully conscious of the risks being taken by plaintiffs and if you knew anything about clarendon county in that period you knew that the Briggs and others who stood up to the system in that jurisdiction were going to have hell to pay.
Narrator: The week before Christmas, 1950, dozens of parents, students and teachers filed into St. Mark A.M.E. church in Summerton, ready to hear an update on their case from Robert Carter, Marshallís key deputy.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: The place was packed to the rafters. Mr. Carter explained that the NAACP thought it was time to attack segregation, root and branch, but that anyone who was a plaintiff in the case need to understand they could experience severe retaliation. He said, ìMr. Marshall wants you to know that you can withdraw.î
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: That was made clear to the petitioners-- if you think you experiencing retribution now...if this case come from here, thereís gonna probably be more reprisals that will come and don't know what form it would take.
Narrator: This was no great revelation to the reverend delaine, or to navy veteran Harry Briggs, whose name was on the legal filing simply because he was first up in the alphabet. Or to any of the other petitioners who had signed onto the original lawsuit. What Marshall had warned about nearly two years earlier had come to pass.
Interview with Eliza Briggs, SOT, Reporter: Did your husband sign this petition?
Eliza Briggs: Yes, he did sign the petition.
Reporter: What happened to him after that?
Eliza Briggs: Well, after he signed the petition, he told him that, unless he take his name off it, he would lose his job.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: On Christmas eve, they gave him a carton of cigarettes and said we got somebody to replace him. Then money dries up. Couldn't get work. He took a pseudonym to get paid. Because they wasnít gonna hire Harry Briggs in the county.
Reporter: What did you tell him?
Eliza Briggs: Well I told him we were only doing it for the betterment of the children.
Eliza Briggs: Not only our children but all of the children.
J. A. Delaine Jr., son of Rev. Delaine: There were a lot of evictions. My father was threatened. The black men in town had formed themselves into a cadre guarding our house at night with guns.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Reverend delaine, he had his home burned, with volunteer firemen standing out front refusing to provide service.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: They did that to send a message, you know. And when his house caught on fire, we thought ours would be next.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: They have children. They have families. They have responsibilities, and they have to think about all that. You know if I lose my farm, what happens next? Maybe Iíll be killed, and also, maybe Iím also the breadwinner of my family. It's not just that Iím going to be killed. My family is going to be destitute.
Narrator: Now here was Robert Carter who didnít have to stay behind and live-in clarendon county ó asking these parents to be the first wave of a frontal attack on the most jagged ramparts of segregation.
There was a pregnant silence when Carter finished his presentation.
Patricia Sullivan, Historian: And then an old man in the back of the church raised his hand and he said, we wondered how long it would take you lawyers to get there. They were ready.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: When you had enough, you just had enough. I mean, you just can't take it anymore. Where can you go? You can't back up. You just can't, you gotta go forward. And that was their mindset.†Not any of those families backed down.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Clarendon county is almost like the Isaac Woodard case. The starkness of the facts, the depth of the racism goes to the very heart of the unfairness and the ugliness of white supremacy, and in that case for Marshall, itís going right into the eye of the storm.
Narrator: Marshall didnít expect to win Briggs v. Elliott in the federal court of South Carolina. But his team did need to build a record of evidence, one that would give the united states supreme court a solid rationale for ending segregation in public schools ó and essentially burying its own separate but equal precedent.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Marshall has to show, well, no matter what you did with resources, just the mere fact of a statute that requires segregation is unconstitutional. Why is it unconstitutional? Well, for us, it would be easy. This is just subordination of black people. But for them, it was hard because they didn't question it. They weren't thinking that segregation was harmful to black people.
Rawn James, Author: He said, if you were in an automobile accident, i would have to show how the accident injured you. Here in this case, he has to show how segregation has injured his clients. What harm has it caused? Enter 37-year-old psychologist, Kenneth Clark, and his now famous dolls.
Narrator: Kenneth and Mamie Clark - the first black Americans to earn PHDs in psychology from Columbia university -- had recently begun conducting a series of research experiments to determine the effect segregation on black children.
The tools of the Clarks' experimental trade were breathtakingly simple: a suitcase full of dolls. Four of them, gender neutral. Identical in every way except for skin color. Two were white, and two were brown. Doctor Kenneth Clark explained their extraordinary findings to NAACP attorney Robert Carter, who lobbied his colleagues to make the Clarksí research central to their legal strategy.
Rawn James, Author: There's a great deal of debate around the table at legal defense headquarters in New York City. They are thinking, what are we going to do with what they call ìthese damn dolls?î Marshall sits at the end of the table, says very little and just smokes, and smokes, and smokes, as the attorneys hash it out, hash it out, until finally Marshall says, ìi have to show injury. The dolls are how Iím going to show the injury to the children. We're taking the dolls with us to South Carolina.î
Meeting & Broad Streets, Charleston
Narrator: By daybreak, on May 28, 1951, a caravan of cars packed with parents, teachers and children was well on its way from Summerton to Charleston, where they were finally going to get their day in court.
As they pulled up to the federal courthouse, the citizens of clarendon county were awed to discover they were not the only ones who had made the journey.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: From across the state, African Americans got up early in the morning, and drove to Charleston. And by the time the sun rose that morning, they were lined up as far as the eye could see.
Nathaniel Briggs, son of Harry & Eliza Briggs: Out the sidewalk, around the corner. And these folks stood out there in hot, hot may weather. You ever been to South Carolina in May? It is hot. Sticky hot.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Thurgood Marshall, arriving that morning for the trial, was amazed. He had never seen such a crowd and he turned to Robert Carter and said, ìbob, it's all over.î Carter, you know, his young associate said, ìThurgood. What are you talking about?î He said, ìthey're not scared anymore.î
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: For Marshall to see the throngs, the crowds, coming out for the first day of trial showed him that something had shifted in the south. Theyíre not afraid anymore to fight for their full citizenship and to make the statement of how important this is to them.
Courtroom, May 28, 1951
Narrator: With the courtroom packed beyond capacity that hot spring morning, Marshall began arguing his case before a panel of three federal judges, one of whom was judge Waties Waring. He sparred with defense witnesses from the school district and presented his own expert testimonies on the egregious disparities between the countyís black and white schools.
Marshall did not stop there. He proceeded to show the court that the damage to the black children in clarendon county was real and quantifiable.
His key witness took the stand that afternoon. Dr. Kenneth Clark, described for the court the doll experiments he and his wife had conducted on hundreds of black schoolchildren across the country, asking them to evaluate and compare the virtues of the black and white dolls.
Rawn James, Author: Kenneth and Mamie Clark conduct these studies over a period of months, and it traumatizes them to have to do this over and over again and get the same answers over and over again from different children, attending different schools in different states.†Without fail the black children preferred the white doll.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Not only does the NAACP have all of the information it needs on the brick-and-mortar issues, now they have evidence that said, look, this is inherently damaging to black children, right? And this is a stigma, and this is a damage from which they will never recover.
Narrator: The trial was shorter than anticipated—just two days.
Marshall had given it his best shot. As he joined the throngs streaming out of the courtroom, the three judges retired to Waringís chambers to discuss the case.
The conference went just as expected. Neither of the other two judges had been persuaded by Marshallís arguments.
Separate but equal would stand in South Carolina.
Waring Pens His Dissent
Narrator: The Briggs plaintiffs had lost, as Marshall suspected they would, 2-1. But, as Waring had planned, the appeal was headed straight to the supreme court. And Waring meant to arm the NAACP attorneys with something for the battle in Washington: a dissenting opinion for the ages.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage:
He knew he was writing for history. He knew this was his moment. And he labored for days carefully constructing and rewriting and revising over and over again, this dissent. He wrote it with care and with precision and with passion.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Waring's dissent is quite remarkable. It's a direct indictment of segregation, and it's important to say that because so many people were finessing the issue.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: He described the testimony of dr. Clark about the injury to black children. And he said, "this must end. It must end now. Segregation is per se inequality."
Narrator: Waring set off the last sentence in a separate paragraph, for effect. And it was, in a way, his final word on the vicious regime of legalized white supremacy in the deep south.
Soon after he filed his dissent in Briggs, Waring wrote President Harry Truman with the news that he was stepping down from his federal judgeship.
The Warings left Charleston for good, retiring to a small apartment in New York City.
Narrator: Thurgood Marshall was fundraising in Alabama when word reached him: the supreme court had finally ruled on the constitutionality of segregation in public schools.
It had been a long and frustrating wait; three years since the trial in judge Waringís courtroom in Charleston. The name ìBriggsî had been subsumed by then. The NAACP had brought four similar desegregation cases, in Virginia, Delaware, the district of Columbia, and Kansas. The five cases had been consolidated and filed as brown v. Board of education of Topeka, Kansas.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: Briggs was the first case to arrive at the supreme court. By all accounts it should have been Briggs v. Elliott. My personal theory is that the court did not want this case banning school segregation to be focused on a southern case. Topeka, Kansas was not in the south. And the south would claim it was being picked on. But how do you say that if the lead defendant is Topeka, Kansas?
Newsreel SOT: The supreme court has rendered a momentous and historic decision saying that education should be equal in this free America.
Thurgood Marshall, SOT: The fact it was a unanimous decision should set to rest once and for all the problem as to whether or not second-class citizenship, segregation, could be consistent any longer with the law of the country.
Kenneth Mack, Historian: Marshall and the NAACP had certainly been hopeful. I donít think there was any reason for them to expert it to be unanimous. That must have been a surprise.
Rawn James, Author: The decision is written in a manner and at a length such that it could be printed in every newspaper in the country. So that it could be read and understood by any literate person in the united states. It was written so that it could be read to someone who might not be able to read him or herself, and that person would be able to understand why and how the justices had reached this conclusion.
Narrator: Citing evidence from the Clarkís doll studies, chief justice earl warren was explicit about the very real damage suffered by children segregated by race. "Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding," he wrote, "is rejected."
But Warren steered clear of any mention of Waties Waring, who had been the only federal judge in the five cases to file a dissent arguing that segregation itself was unconstitutional.
Richard Gergel, Author, Unexampled Courage: You got to remember at this time Judge Waring is a very polarizing figure. He's probably the most reviled white man in the south among white southerners. The court didn't make his dissent the basis of their decision. But it is obvious when you read it, it is judge Waring's language.
Narrator: Back in New York City, Walter White and other luminaries from New Yorkís civil rights community gathered in the Waringsí parlor to toast the historic milestone and the final triumph of judge Waringís judicial strategy.
A few miles away, Thurgood Marshall and his team held their own victory party, allowing themselves only the briefest of revelries. For Marshall, the brown ruling did not mark the end of a hard-fought battle, but the beginning of a new one.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Everyone was celebrating in the office and Marshall said you're all a bunch of fools, you know. We have a lot more work ahead, ok, we have to get back to work. He understood what was to come. As a leader, you can barely experience excitement without looking around the corner for whatever is the next challenge or work that has to be done.
SOT: Like it is with Gil Noble
Gil Noble: Hello, welcome to like it is. Todayís edition features a look back in time into the tragedy of Isaac Woodard. A man whose confrontation with southern racism came to symbolize the brutality in America at the end of world war ii.
Narrator: Nearly 40 years after his blinding, Isaac Woodard agreed to revisit the details of his ordeal with a local television journalist.
SOT: ìlike it isî with Gil Noble
Noble: Do you think back towards those days, to have something like this happen to you while youíre still in uniform?
Woodard: A lot of people ask me, was i bitter with, you know, with the world, with everybody? I told them, no! I wasnít, i wasnít because, i said well, everybody ainít bad, that i know. And the one that Iím really bitter against, the one that really did it to me.
Noble: He never served a day.
Woodard: no, no, no.
Noble: kept his job.
Woodard: Right, right. He kept his job. They didnít even take him off the force. You know?
Robert Young, Woodard's nephew: For the first few years, he called them names i couldn't even mention, but, uh, he grew out of it.
Laura Williams, Woodardís great-niece: I saw the part of him after the bitterness, and the anger, and the frustration. Most of the time I saw him, he was smiling. He was so well-dressed. There was a tie clip on the tie, and you could tell how he walked, he was proud of who he was.
Narrator: In 1962, the us army finally granted Sergeant Woodard the disability benefits they had denied him in the years following his blinding.
Eventually, he was able to buy several properties throughout the Bronx and provide a comfortable life for himself and his family.
SOT: ìlike it isî with Gil Noble
Noble: What, what do you think that people should learn about, this happened to Isaac Woodard. What lesson is there?
Noble: about America?
Woodard: Well, i mean, the way i feel about it, you know, that people should learn how to live with one another, and how to treat one another. ëcause after all, we all are, weíre human beings, regardless of the color. Everybody should, you know, have some sympathy for one another. You know? And donít do cruel things to one another that you donít wanna be did to you. Thatís the way i feel about it.
Narrator: Isaac Woodard died in 1992, at age 73, entirely unaware that his simple request to be treated like a man, and the injustice that followed it had emboldened a federal judge and the President of the United States to pursue the destruction of legalized segregation.
Kari Frederickson, Historian: Historians like to talk in terms of grand narratives, but when you look closely, you find that often it is a single person taking a certain action. It's not often sufficient to cause grand change, but it is a spark.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Every fundamental shift in this country has required the courage of ordinary people to demand that they be respected. Exceptional human beings who were willing to put their lives on the line. The ways in which theyíve changed this country we accept almost like air without ever giving a moment's thought to the individuals who sacrificed themselves for it. You donít know what the effect of your speaking up and using your voice will be, it may even look like it was nominal. But in the long course of history, can be earth-shattering, and powerful, and important.