War of the Words: Orson Welles v. South Carolina

One of the more incredible news stories during the era of the Willie McGee case was an outbreak of race-based violence that took place in the South in 1946, a year that saw several lynchings, beatings, and incidents of police brutality directed at African Amercians, many of them returning soldiers. The purpose was to remind these men that, whatever tastes of freedom they had enjoyed overseas, they were back home now, and the old codes still applied.

Among the most famous of these cases: the February 1946 beating and blinding of Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old Army veteran, recently discharged from duty in the Pacific. Woodard was on board a Greyhound bus in South Carolina, heading north to his home in New York, when he got into some sort of verbal dispute with the bus driver. Accounts varied as to who said what and why, but the result was an atrocity that made headlines around the nation. The driver stopped in a small town called Batesburg, contacted the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, and claimed that Woodard was drunk and disorderly. The sargeant was taken off the bus, clubbed repeatedly in the face, and hauled in to jail, where he was jabbed in the eyeballs with the end of a billy club. By the next morning, he’d permanently lost his vision.

Woodard with his mother in New York

The Woodard blinding became a national symbol of the injustices being committed against black veterans, and it was one of the driving factors that inspired President Harry S. Truman to announce in the summer of 1947 that he would pursue federal civil rights legislation. By the standards of what came in the 1960s, Truman’s proposals were only a tentative first step—for example, he asked Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, which it never did—but they were enough to alienate the South, endangering his chances of reelection in 1948.

Truman wasn’t the only prominent citizen who was appalled, of course, and the Woodard incident became a special cause for Orson Welles, who railed about it repeatedly on his ABC-Radio show, Orson Welles Commentaries. In this episode, aired in 1946, Welles corrects an error that he’d aired in an earlier broadcast—in which he said that the Woodard incident happened in a town called Aiken—clears his basso-profundo throat, and then really goes to town. In classic Welles form, he’s over the top at times. But with an incident like this, which other direction could you go?

While you’re listening, check out Welles’s broadcast about a 1946 atomic test blast on Bikini Atoll. A weirdly inspired incantation …

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3 responses to “War of the Words: Orson Welles v. South Carolina

  1. Armando Ramirez

    African American Veterans being attacked on returning home in the south, reminds me of a story told to me by such a vet. Lee Cain, a late, well known, labor activist and Communist in Detroit, suffered a similar fate. He was returning home after being discharged from the army, still in his army uniform, when he was kidnapped by a group of white men. They took him into the woods, tied him to a tree, pulled his pants down and beat him with a belt. Lee moved to Detroit, got a job in an auto plant, joined the Communist Party and spent the rest of his life fighting against racism.

    • Thanks for leaving this interesting comment. Do you happen to know if this was covered in a newspaper anywhere? Just curious, because I might try to look it up. I suppose that a lot of things happened like this after the war that weren’t written about anywhere.

    • I was so confused about what to buy, but this makes it understabnadle.

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