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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

February 12, 1946

Sometimes in order to appreciate what we have in the present, we have to take a trip back to a time in which things weren’t always so nice and diplomatic.  Such is the case with our look back on February 12.  And, since you already know that this is the special “Black History Month” that the blog is observing all month long, you know that it has something to do with that.

Before we begin that discussion though, we have some other things to get out of the way first.  I hope you will all join me in wishing the following famous faces a happy February 12 birthday.  Happy birthday to Franco Zeffirelli, Joe Garagiola, Charles Van Doren, Maurice Filion, Annette Crosbie, Bill Russell, Joe Don Baker, Judy Blume, Ray Manzarek (The Doors), Moe Bandy, Maud Adams, Cliff DeYoung, Ray Kurzweil, Mike Robitaille, Michael Ironside, Steve Hackett (Genesis), Michael McDonald, Joanna Kerns, Nabil Shaban, Robin Thomas, Bill Laswell, Chet Lemon, Arsenio Hall, Brian Robertson (Thin Lizzy), Bobby Smith, Larry Nance, Sigrid Thornton, George Gray, Ed Lover, Jacqueline Woodson, Michel Petit, Ruben Amaro Jr., Christine Elise, John Michael Higgins, David Westlake, Josh Brolin, Gregory Charles, Chynna Phillips, Meja, Brad Werenka, Jim Creeggan (Barenaked Ladies), Scott Menville, Ajay Naidu, Tara Strong, Scot Pollard, Jimmy Conrad, Jesse Spencer, Sarah Lancaster, Christina Ricci, Carlton Brewster, Brad Keselowski, Peter Vanderkaay, Saskia Burmeister, Mike Posner, and Jennifer Stone.

And, here’s a list of some of the events that happened throughout world history today.

1541 – The city of Santiago, Chile is founded by Pedro de Valdivia

1554 – Lady Jane Grey is beheaded for treason just one year after claiming the throne of England – for a total of nine days

1733 – James Oglethorpe founds the colony of Georgia (the last of the Thirteen Colonies), and also founds the first city in Georgia (Savannah)

1771 – Gustav III becomes the King of Sweden

1809 – English naturalist Charles Darwin and future American President Abraham Lincoln are both born on this date

1816 – The oldest working opera house in Europe (The Teatro di San Carlo) is destroyed by fire

1832 – Ecuador annexes the Galapagos Islands

1851 – Edward Hargreaves announces that he has found gold in Bathurst, Australia, kicking off the Australian gold rush

1855 – Michigan State University is founded

1894 – Anarchist Emile Henry throws a bomb inside Paris, France’s “Cafe Terminus”, killing one and injuring twenty

1909 – The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is founded

1914 – The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. is placed

1934 – The Austrian Civil War begins

1935 – USS Macon crashes into Pacific Ocean and sinks

1947 – A meteor crashes into the Soviet Union near Sikhote-Alin, leaving a large crater behind

1968 – Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat massacre

1974 – The 1970 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is exiled from the Soviet Union

1976 – Actor Sal Mineo is stabbed in West Hollywood, and dies of his stab wounds at the age of 37

1990 – Carmen Lawrence becomes the first female Premier in Australian history

1994 – A group of four men break into the National Gallery of Norway and make off with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

1999 – Bill Clinton is acquitted by the United States Senate in his impeachment trial

2000 – Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz passes away in Santa Rosa, California at the age of 77, just one day before his final Peanuts strip runs

2002 – The trial of Slobodan Milosevic begins

2004 – San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom directs the city to begin granting licenses for same-sex marriages

2009 – Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashes into a house in Clarence Center, New York, killing one on the ground and all passengers aboard

2011 – The writer of this blog undergoes a critical surgery which saw him lose his entire gall bladder and one-quarter of his liver

(Hey, it’s important to me...why wouldn’t I celebrate it?  J )

2012 – A primary election is held in Venezuela to choose the opponent of Hugo Chavez

So, as you can see, that is a lot of history associated with the 12th of February.  But there’s one more event that I really want to talk about in greater detail.  And, this look back in the Tuesday Timeline this week is a story that is not a pleasant one to hear.  But as I talked about at the beginning of this blog entry...sometimes you have to look at some of the most disgusting events of our past in order to truly embrace the things that we all have now.

We’re going back to February 12, 1946 in this look back through time.  And this story begins in the state of South Carolina, where a young man named Isaac Woodard was making his way on a Greyhound bus to visit relatives in North Carolina.  He had boarded the bus from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and aside from an argument with the bus driver in which he requested to use a restroom the bus ride wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

That is, until the bus made a trip through the area now known as Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, and an incident happened that would change Woodard’s life forever.

The bus driver had contacted the local police (which at that time included Chief of Police Linwood Shull), and the police boarded the bus with the purpose of forcibly removing Woodard from the bus.  The police had insisted on seeing Woodard’s discharge papers, as Woodard had been given an honorable discharge from the United States Army.

Just to backtrack a little bit before I continue with the story, Isaac Woodard served in the armed forces between 1942 and 1946, where he served as a longshoreman in a labor battalion.  During his time in the forces, he was bestowed several honours which included a battle star, a Good Conduct Medal, a Service Medal, and a World War II Victory Medal.  So, we have a real war hero in our tale.

So, how was this veteran treated by the police force back in 1946?  Well, once he was escorted off the bus, he was taken into an alleyway, repeatedly beaten with the nightsticks of the policemen, and arrested on the alleged charge of drinking beer in the back of the bus with other soldiers.

There were no reports of any provocation by Woodard to justify the amount of force that was used against him by the police officers who beat him, but one thing remained clear.  The attack caused Woodard enough damage that he was left with only mild recollections of what really happened that day.  What was worse, the attack left Woodard permanently blinded, due to the damage that was caused to his eyes after being repeatedly beaten.

The morning after the attack, Woodard was brought into the judge’s chambers, where he was fined fifty dollars after the judge ruled that he was guilty.  Still in rough shape, Woodard asked to see a doctor, and he eventually did...two days later!  He eventually did get some treatment at a South Carolina hospital, but by then, it was too late to reverse the damage caused to his eyes.

It actually took twenty-one days before any of Woodard’s relatives discovered him at the hospital, and was rushed immediately to an Army hospital to recover.

But this was one case that refused to die.  And with Woodard’s case being covered extensively in the media, and the NAACP campaigning for the state of South Carolina to address the issue, the public outcry began to grow from a whisper to a shout.

Woodard’s story became so huge that even broadcaster/filmmaker Orson Welles voiced his displeasure, openly calling for punishment against those who perpetrated the assault against Woodard, and also criticized the reaction of the Governor of South Carolina for attempting to sweep the case under the rug. 

Seven months after the attack on Woodard, on September 19, 1946, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White met with President Harry S Truman at the White House to discuss the case, and Truman reportedly exploded in a rage after he found out that the government of South Carolina did nothing to aid Woodard.  One day after that meeting, Truman composed a letter to Attorney General Tom C. Clark demanding that action be taken to address the state’s reluctance to take the case to trial, and less than a week later directed the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation on the case.

The case took a twist on October 2, 1946, when Shull and his officers were indicted in U.S. District Court in the city of Charleston, South Carolina.  Because the beating has occurred at a bus stop on federal property, and because Woodard was in uniform when the beating happened, the courts felt that there was enough reason to start up a trial. 

Unfortunately, the trial was a failure of epic proportions.

The trial (which was presided by Judge Julius Waties Waring) featured a local U.S. Attorney failing to interview any witnesses (aside from the bus driver who drove the bus that fateful February day in 1946).  This decision alone earned the wrath of Waring, who was a civil rights proponent.  In fact, Waring was later noted as making a statement that he was “disgusted by the hypocrisy of the government”.

The defense attorneys were no better in the case, with one even going so far as uttering racial slurs at Woodard...something that Judge Waring put a stop to almost immediately, and making comments to the jury that if they ruled against Shull, that South Carolina should secede from the union.

Shull, for his part, denied any wrongdoing after hearing Woodard testify as to what happened on February 12, 1946.  He claimed that Woodard had threatened to shoot him, and that was what provoked the attack.  He also admitted to repeatedly striking Woodard in his eyes.

Sounds open and shut, right?

The jury deliberated for thirty minutes before coming back with a “not guilty” verdict for Shull, despite his admission that he was responsible for blinding Woodard.  The failure to convict Shull was seen as a failure on the part of the Truman administration, and frankly, I would imagine that the verdict left behind a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.  Though Truman would end up getting re-elected (barely) in 1948, he was still challenged because of his fight for civil rights, and his approval rating plummeted.

However, the case did inspire a couple of positive changes.

Truman promulgated Executive Order 9981 in July 1948, which was put in place to ban racial discrimination against soldiers of African-American descent in the Armed Forces.  The case of Isaac Woodard inspired Welles to make a film based on the events, 1958’s “Touch of Evil”.  And, Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded a song entitled “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard”, which he performed to a crowd of 36,000 people at Lewisohn Stadium, which netted him the loudest applause he had ever gotten in his whole career!

As for the key players in the case, Linwood Shull remained in Batesburg, South Carolina and died at the age of 95 in December 1997.  Isaac Woodard relocated to New York City shortly after the trial to live out the rest of his days.  He died on September 23, 1992 in The Bronx, New York at the age of 73.  He was buried with military honours at the Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, New York.

What happened to Isaac Woodard in February 1946 was unimaginable, and incredibly unjust.  But what was most horrifying about the whole situation was that back then, this was considered to be absolutely normal!  Do any of you think that this would have happened had Woodard been white?  I have a hard time swallowing that one.

However, it was because of this incident that the Civil Rights Movement began to find its voice and make themselves heard.  And though it was too late to help Woodard, I’m sure that over the years that have passed since, there have been great steps to ensure that these events happen a lot less frequently.

Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are still cases of people being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, or their sexuality, or something else that they have no control over.  But thanks to what happened with Isaac Woodard, people no longer have to suffer in silence.

I guess if you want to look at it this way, Woodard gave up his sight, so that others could find their voices.

And, that’s what happened on February 12, 1946.

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