They woke up the wrong man

It seems to have become a permanent part of my mental luggage

In February of 1946 a man named Isaac Woodard had made his way back to South Carolina after three years of serving in the war. This is a rather well known and historically consequential story and maybe you know it but I had never heard of it myself until just the other day. That is not exactly remarkable though there are a lot of stories of our country’s history of systemic brutal racism that I don’t know and that we are never taught in school and in any case there are so many of them a person could never learn them all even if they wanted to.

Woodard’s ordeal has been written about in detail including in a book titled Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring by Richard Gergel an excerpt of which you can read here.

“On the cool winter night of February 12, 1946, Isaac Woodard Jr. climbed aboard a Greyhound bus in Augusta, Georgia, on his last leg home to Winnsboro, South Carolina, from a journey that had begun in the Philippines several weeks before,” Gergel writes. “Woodard, who was 26 years old, had just completed an arduous three-year tour in the U.S. Army, where he served in the Pacific theater, earned a battle star for unloading ships under enemy fire during the New Guinea campaign, and won promotions, ultimately to the rank of sergeant.”

A disagreement of some kind happened between Woodard and the driver of the bus he was traveling on that night. They eventually pulled over along the way and the driver alerted the local police in a town called Batesburg that a black passenger was being disruptive and you already know where this is going. Woodard was almost immediately beaten and ultimately blinded by a police officer later identified as Lynwood Shull.

In July of that year Orson Welles — who had released Citizen Kane a few years earlier — read from Woodard’s own account about what transpired that night on his radio program after it was brought to his attention by the NAACP and others.

I’d like to read to you…an affidavit. I, Isaac Woodard Jr, being duly sworn to depose and state as follows: that I am twenty seven years old and a veteran of the United States Army, having served fifteen months in the South Pacific, and having earned one battle star. I was honorably discharged on February 12, 1946, at Camp Gordon, Georgia, at 8:30 pm at the Greyhound terminal at Atlanta, Georgia. 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 stopped at a small drug store, as he stopped I asked if he had time to wait for me until I had the chance to go to the restroom. He cursed and said no. When he cursed me, I cursed him back. When the bus got to Aiken, he got off and went and got the police. They didn’t give me a chance to explain. The policeman struck me across the head with a billy, and told me to shut up. After that, 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. He asked me, “Was I discharged?” and I told him, “Yes”, when I said “Yes”, that was when he started beating me with a billy, hitting me across the top of the head, after that I grabbed his billy and wrung it out of his hand. Another policeman came up and threw his gun on me and told me to drop the billy or he’d drop me, so, I dropped the billy. After I dropped the billy, the second policeman held his gun on me while the other one was beating me. He knocked me unconscious. After I commenced to recover myself, he yelled “Get up!”, I started to get up, he started punching me in my eyes with the end of the billy. When I finally got up he pushed me inside the jailhouse, and locked me up. I woke up next morning, and could not see.

Woodard appears to have misidentified the town in question as Aiken which would go on to create some controversy and a considerable amount of anger and boycotts directed at Welles’ but he corrected the record in subsequent broadcasts.

A policeman said, “Let’s go up here and see what the judge says.” I told him that I could not see, or come out, I was blind. He said, “Feel your way out.” He said I’d be alright after I washed my face. He led me to the judge, and after I told the judge what happened, he said, “We don’t have that kind of stuff down here.” Then the policeman said: “He wrung the billy out of my hand, and I told him if he didn’t drop it, I’d drop him.” That’s how I know it was the same policeman that beat my eyes out. After that the judge spoke and said, “I fine you $50 or thirty days in the row.” And I said I’d pay the fifty dollars, but I did not have the fifty dollars at the time, so the policeman said, “You have some money there in your wallet.” He took my wallet and took out all I had, it was a total of forty dollars, and took four dollars from my watch pocket. I had a cheque for six hundred and ninety four dollars and seventy three cents, which was my mustering out soldiers’ deposit. He said to me, “Can you see how to sign this check? You have a government cheque.” I told him, “No, sir.” So, he gave it back to me after that. Took me back, locked me up in the jail, the policeman did, I stayed in there for a while, and after a few minutes, he came and asked me if I wanted a drink of whiskey. If I took a drink of whiskey, I’d feel better. I told him, “No, sir.” I didn’t care for any.

The offer of the whiskey — and this had not immediately occurred to me when I first heard it because I am stupid — was an attempt to make Woodard appear drunk and disorderly when he would be examined by a doctor meaning he therefore had his injuries coming.

At 5:30 that evening they took me to the veterans’ hospital, in Columbia, South Carolina, one of the contact men came round one day and said to me they were going to take out a pension for me. I believe that the doctor who cared for me was named Dr. Clarence. I told him what had happened to me, he made no comment. But told me I should…join a blind school.

Listen below as Welles who was of course a brilliant orator pause on that last line.

I’ve included the transcript of the rest of that broadcast below which I found in this recounting of the story but you should listen to it as well. He was a complicated person and by no means perfect but listen to the anger in Welles’ telling here. It’s both inspiring and maddening in that the substance of what he says with a few details switched here and there feels like it could be taken from this very summer over seventy years later. Or any summer in between.

Welles coincidentally was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

This may be somewhat related to the story at hand but a couple of years ago Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth referred to a group of black shoplifters as “garbage people that fill our communities that are a cancer to our society.”

“I think at some point society has to get so fed up that they are no longer willing to tolerate people who are not an asset to society,” he said in 2018 at a news conference. “I think we have to create a threshold where, once you cross the threshold, Wisconsin, the United States, builds warehouses where we put these people who have been deemed to be no longer an asset, that are really a detriment, like these five people.”

“I have no issue with these five people completely disappearing,” he said. “At (this) point, these people are no longer an asset to our community, and they just need to disappear.”

Around the time of the first Welles broadcast there had been a terrible lynching of two black couples in Walton County, Georgia and numerous other acts of racist violence and riots in Columbia, Tennessee and elsewhere. In a subsequent show Welles would address all of that in a way that I found particularly resonant in this moment of uprisings against police violence around the country and the mealy-mouthed concern trolling about what kind of effects such “riots” today will actually have for the cause.

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 have a voice on the radio, he hasn’t. I was born a white man. And until a colored man is a full citizen, like me, I haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I don’t own what I have until he owns an equal share of it. Until somebody beats me and blinds me, I am in his debt. And so I come to this microphone not as a radio dramatist, though it pays better, not as a commentator, although it’s safer to be simply that, I come in that boy’s name, and in the name of all who in this land of ours have no voice of their own. I come with a call for action. This is a time for it. I call for action against the cause of riot. I know that to some ears, even the word “action” has a revolutionary twang, and it won’t surprise me if I’m accused in some quarters of inciting to riot. Well, I’m very interested in riots. I’m very interested in avoiding them. And so I call for action against the cause of riots.

Action against the cause of riots. Yes. Yes. Perfectly said. The cause of our “riots” today are the murder and brutalization of Americans and especially black Americans by police who almost never suffer any consequences. That is the specific cause of these marches and protests.

You’ve probably seen a lot of very sincere concern about “riots” of late from people who swear “they’re as liberal as they come, but...” (There are few bigger lies than that told by white libs by the way.) This is a different thing than concern from the people who live in these communities to be clear. I’m talking instead about the hand wringing over what the property damage and vandalism and so on might do as the election approaches as if Joe fucking Biden’s electoral prospects are the first or even tenth thing on anyone’s mind when they take to the streets to protest injustice and demand their own civil rights. Many of the people saying that type of thing right now are performing an act of moral ventriloquism throwing the voice of their own discomfort upon some amorphous block of unnamed undecided voters because they suspect it would be distasteful to say outright themselves that they simply do not like people refusing to behave and would prefer that we — as I’ve said in here before — simply vote the police baton off of their necks.

But I digress. Incensed by the racist violence Welles would devote five segments of his show to the Woodard case helping it gain much wider national attention and lead to charges eventually being brought against his assailant Shull by Harry Truman’s Department of Justice after it became clear the South Carolina state authorities were not going to act. The archives of those programs can be heard here.

You may not be surprised to hear that Shull was ultimately found not-guilty by an all white jury in a case that was widely considered a fiasco by the presiding judge himself Julius Waring and others. “I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government…in submitting that disgraceful case,” Waring said later. Woodard’s defense attorney reportedly shouted racist epithets at his own client during the trial and said in court “if you rule against Shull, then let this South Carolina secede again.”

As Gergel and others have written the fallout of the case moved Truman who soon after ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. The results haunted Waring too.

“...The jury’s failure to hold the obviously culpable police officer accountable profoundly troubled the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, and sent him on a personal journey of study and reflection on race and justice in America,” Gergel writes. “Within months following the Shull trial, Waring began issuing landmark civil rights decisions, then unprecedented for a federal district judge in the South. Despite blistering public denunciations, death threats, and attacks on his home, Waring persisted in upholding the rule of law in his Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom, including his 1951 dissent in a school desegregation case, Briggs v. Elliott, in which he declared government-mandated segregation a per se violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Three years later, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court would adopt Waring’s reasoning and language in Brown v. Board of Education, destroying the legal foundation of Jim Crow segregation.”

Gergel incidentally is a federal judge who presides over the same courtroom Waring once did.

Woodard lived in New York City for the rest of his life where he died in a VA hospital in the Bronx at the age of 73. His drunk and disorderly charge was finally vacated in 2018 and a historical marker was erected in his honor near where he was beaten. The bottom of the marker is written in braille.

Shull lived largely in obscurity in South Carolina and died at the age of 95.

Ok here’s the rest of that first Welles radio program. All of the following ones are worth reading and listening to as well.

...Well, ladies and gentlemen, I had that affidavit in my pocket a few hours before dawn when I left off worrying about this broadcast long enough for coffee at an all-night restaurant. I found myself joined at the table by a stranger. A nice, soft-spoken, well-meaning, well-mannered stranger. He told me a joke. He thinks it’s a joke. I’m going to repeat it, but not for your amusement, I earnestly hope that nobody listening will laugh. This is the joke.

Seems there’s a white man who came on business to a southern town, it could be Aiken, South Carolina…and found he couldn’t get a bed in any of the good hotels. He went to the bad hotels and finally the flophouses, but there was no room for him in any of the inns reserved for white folks, in that southern city, so at last, in desperation, he applied to a Negro hotel where he was accepted with the proviso that he would consent to share a double room with another guest. In rueful gratitude, this white man paid his bill left a call for early in the morning, he rested well, quite undisturbed by the proximity of the sleeping colored man beside him, and he was awakened at the hour of his request. After breakfast, he left for the railway station where he boarded his appointed train, but the conductor would not let him into any of the regular coaches. The man was told quite rudely to go where he belonged, the Jim Crow car. The hero of this funny story allowed he hadn’t washed in the morning, and the dust of travel must be responsible for the conductor’s grievous social miscalculation. He went to the washroom, he started to clean his hands.

They were black. An even hued black. Then he looked into the mirror. His face was the same color. He not only looked darker than white, he was quite visibly a Negro. A great oath precedes the final line which is presumed to be the funny part of this little anecdote: “I know what’s happened,” are the next words of the man. “It’s very simple.” “They woke up the wrong man!”

I left the teller of this tale in the coffee shop, but I found I couldn’t leave the tale itself. Like the affidavit I read at the start of the broadcast, it seems to have become a permanent part of my mental luggage. I sketched in my imagination a sequel to the stranger’s funny joke. I saw the man of business who’d gone to bed a white man getting into an argument with a conductor, I saw a policeman boarding a train at the next station, and taking the man of business out on the platform, and beating the eyes out of his head, because the man thought he should be treated with the same respect he’d received the day before when he was white. I saw a man at the police station trying to make him take a drink, so the medical authorities could testify that he was drunk. I saw the man of business bleeding in his cell. Reaching out with sightless hands through unseen bars, gesturing for help that would not, could not ever come. And I heard his explanation echoing down the stone hallways of the jail: “I know what’s happened, it’s very simple.” “They woke up the wrong man.”

Now it seems the officer of the law who blinded the young Negro boy in the affidavit has not been named. The boy saw him while he could still see, but of course he had no way of knowing which particular policeman it was. Who brought the justice of Dachau and Oswiecim to Aiken, South Carolina. He was just another white man with a stick, who wanted to teach a Negro boy a lesson – to show a Negro boy where he belonged: In the darkness. Till we know more about him, for just now, we’ll call the policeman Officer X. He might be listening to this. I hope so. Officer X, I’m talking to you. Officer X, they woke up the wrong man. That somebody else, that man sleeping there, is you. The you that god brought into the world. All innocent of hate, a paid up resident member of the brotherhood of man. Yes. Unbelievably enough, that’s you, Officer X. You. Still asleep. That you could have been anything, it could have gone to the White House when it grew up. It could have gone to heaven when it died. But they woke up the wrong man. They finally came for him in the blank grey of dawn, as in the death house they come for the condemned. But without prayers. They came with instructions. The accumulated ignorance of the feudal south. And with this particular briefing they called Cain, for another day of the devil’s work. While Abel slept. Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash them well. Scrub and scour, you won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran. Nor yet the color of your skin. Your own skin. You’ll never, never change it. Wash your hands, Officer X. Wash a lifetime, you’ll never wash away that leprous lack of pigment. The guilty pallor of the white man.

We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy, it will be brief. Go on. Suckle your anonymous moment while it lasts. You’re going to be uncovered! We will blast out your name! We’ll give the world your given name, Officer X. Yes, and your so-called Christian name. It’s going to rise out of the filthy deep like the dead thing it is. We’re going to make it public with the public scandal you dictated, but failed to sign.

We pause now for a word from the philosophers. A short reminder regarding the matter of payment and cost. Nothing is paid back. That does not happen. Not on earth. A favor cannot be paid back, neither can a wrong. We say a criminal pays for his crime, when we lock him up, a murderer pays for his murder when the state murders him, but really the state is hiding an unsightly object. Society is merely sweeping its dirt under the carpet. We may sometimes manage to cure the thing called “crime”…but the man called a criminal is never punished; he can be inconvenienced, or tormented, or done away with, but he can never pay for what he has done. If the ledger is ever balanced, it is not by him, but by some other man having nothing to do with him. It is balanced by deeds of virtue. By unrelated good works. The evil-doers agony doesn’t show up in the books. Only that fiction known to us as money can be paid back. The true debt, the debt of a friend to a friend, or a foe to a foe outlives the principles involved. So much for payment.

Price. That’s something else. There’s a price for everything. There’s nothing that does not have its cost. Joy and inspiration and mere pleasure have a market value precisely computed in terms of their opposites. The cost of youth is age, the cost of age is death. You want love? The cost of love is independence. You want to be independent, do you? Then pay the price, and know what it is to feel alone. Your mother paid for you with pain. Nothing nothing in this living world is free. The free air costs you the life consuming effort of breath. Freedom itself is priced at the rate of the citizenship it earns and holds. What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his eyes. What does it cost to wear over your skeleton a pinkish tint officially described as “white”? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his soul.

Officer X may languish in jail. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible he’ll serve as long a term as a Negro would serve in Aiken, South Carolina, for stealing bread. But Officer X will never pay for the two eyes he beat out of the soldier’s head. How can you assay the gift of sight? What are they quoting today for one eye? An eye for an eye? A literal reading of this Mosaic law spells out again only the blank waste of vengeance. We’ve told Officer X that he’ll be dragged out of hiding. We’ve promised him a most unflattering glare of publicity. We’re going to keep that promise. We’re going to build our own police line-up to line up this reticent policeman, with the killers, the lunatics, the beastmen, all the people of society’s zoo. Where he belongs. If he’s listening to this, let him listen well. Officer X. After I’ve found you out, I’ll never lose you. If they try you, I’m going to watch the trial. If they jail you, I’m going to wait for your first day of freedom. You won’t be free of me. I want to see who’s waiting for you at the prison gates. I want to know who will acknowledge that they know you. I’m interested in your future. I will take careful note of all your destinations. Assume another name and I will be careful that the name you would forget is not forgotten. I will find means to remove from you all refuge, Officer X. You can’t get rid of me. We have an appointment, you and I. And only death can cancel it.

Who am I? A masked avenger from the comic books? No sir, merely an inquisitive citizen of America. I admit that nothing on this inhabited earth is capable of your chastisement. I’m simply but quite actively curious to know what will become of you. Your fate cannot affect the boy in the country hospital for the blind, but your welfare is a measure of the welfare of my country. I cannot call it your country. How long will you get along in these United States? Which of the states will consent to get along with you? Where stands the sun of common fellowship? When will it rise over your dark country? When will it be noon in Georgia? I must know where you go, Officer X, because I must know where the rest of us are going with our American experiment. Into bankruptcy? Or into that serene tomorrow, that plenteous garden that blind soldier hoped for when he had his eyes, and with eyes open, he went to war. We want a world that will lighten his darkness. You’re sorry for him? He rejects your pity. You’re ashamed? He doesn’t care. We want to tell him soon that all America is ashamed of you. If there’s room for pity, you can have it, for you are far more blind than he. He had eyes to see and saw with them, they made out if nothing else, at least part of the shape of human dignity, and this is not a little thing, but you have eyes to see and you have never seen.

He has the memory of light. But you were born in a pit. He cannot grow new eyes to open the world again for his poor bruised ones. Never. No. The only word we can share with the martyr to carry him from the county hospital to the county grave is word concerning your eyes, Officer X. Your eyes, remember, were not gouged away. Only the lids are closed. You might raise the lids, you might just try the wild adventure of looking. You might see something, it might be a simple truth. One of those truths held to be self-evident by our founding fathers and most of us. If we should ever find you bravely blinking at the sun, we’ll know then that the world is young after all. That chaos is behind us and not ahead. Then there will be shouting of trumpets to rouse the dead at Gettysburg. A thunder of cannon will declare the tidings of peace, and all the bells of liberty will laugh out loud in the streets to celebrate goodwill towards all men. The new blind can hear, and it would be very good if they could hear the news that the old blind can finally see them. Officer X, you’ll find that you can wash off what should be washed, and it will be said of you, even you, they awakened the right man.