U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel recently took center stage at the Daniel Island Community Speakers Series to discuss his book, “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.”
The sold-out event delved into what Gergel describes as a forgotten chapter of civil rights history that unfolded in the aftermath of World War II.
The book, published in 2019, begins with the brutal incident involving Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a Black veteran returning home from war.
On the day of his discharge, Woodard found himself in the middle of a racial dispute with a Greyhound bus driver over required restroom breaks when the driver wouldn’t stop. In Batesburg, South Carolina, the situation escalated when the driver summoned the police, resulting in police Chief Lynwood Shull assaulting Woodard so severely that he was left sightless and without eyes.
President Harry S. Truman, appalled by the incident, ordered the Justice Department to pursue a criminal civil rights case against Chief Shull. The responsibility of prosecuting fell on Judge J. Waties Waring.
The trial lasted just one day, and the all-white, all-male jury acquitted Shull in a mere 28 minutes. Waring, shocked by the injustice, went on to become a towering figure in the civil rights movement.
Gergel described Waring’s actions as revolutionary. In the following year, Waring compelled the Democratic Party to open its whites-only primary to Black voters. He also convicted a white farmer for exploiting a sharecropper and pursued a case challenging school segregation, a case that eventually led to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Judge Gergel, widely-known for presiding over the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist convicted of the 2015 Mother Emanuel church murders, focused his talk on Waring’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Despite the threats and intimidation he faced from the Ku Klux Klan and the risk of impeachment, Waring stood as a “beacon of justice,” Gergel said.
In discussing his motivation behind writing the book, Gergel expressed a deep interest in uncovering hidden historical moments in South Carolina’s past. The district court judge remarked, “You don’t often have the opportunity in life to do something you really think is good. I think it’s a really important contribution to the history of our country.”
The book, “Unexampled Courage,” not only serves as a historical record but also as an inspiration for change. By recounting the life and struggles of Judge J. Waties Waring, Judge Gergel brings attention to a figure whose contributions had a profound impact on dismantling racial segregation and promoting equal rights during a tumultuous era in American history.
Gergel concluded the speaker series by summarizing his narrative that exposes both the dark injustices of the past and the capacity for positive change.
“‘Unexampled Courage’ is a story that deserves to be told with all of its pathos, its brutality and its redemption of the American system of justice,” Gergel said.