PBS looks at violent act against a Black Army sergeant and how it spurred a racial awakening
By ADRIAN GOMEZ | Albuquerque Journal | Published: March 28, 2021
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — Isaac Woodard. He was a Black Army sergeant in World War II traveling back home to South Carolina.
In 1946, he was taken off a Greyhound bus after a heated exchange with the driver, who refused to let him off at a rest stop to use the restroom.
The local chief of police savagely beat him, leaving him unconscious and permanently blind.
The shocking incident made national headlines and, when the police chief was acquitted by an all-white jury, the blatant injustice would change the course of American history.
It's a story that Jamila Ephron knows all too well as a filmmaker. She is at the helm of the "American Experience" documentary, "The Blinding of Isaac Woodard."
Ephron was able to use Richard Gergel's book, "Unexampled Courage," as the basis for the film.
The film details how the crime led to the racial awakenings of South Carolina Judge J. Waties Waring and President Harry S. Truman, who desegregated federal offices and the military two years later.
The event also ultimately set the stage for the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which finally outlawed segregation in public schools and jump-started the modern civil rights movement.
"It's a pleasure to dig deep into topics like this," Ephron says. "There's a lot of possible reasons that his story isn't well known. There were a lot of guys like Isaac who suffered horrific hate crimes in the post-war years. A lot of people didn't live to tell of it. Certainly, it was hard for Black men and Black people to be believed if they survived these crimes. It was easy to bury stories like this. Today, we have cellphone videos that can serve as evidence."
Ephron and crew began work on the documentary at the beginning of 2020, after months of planning in 2019.
Of course, the pandemic shifted how the film would ultimately be made.
"I live in New York City and we got hit pretty hard in March through May," she says. "Life in the city was driven to a halt. The people that needed to be interviewed were all over the country. I would go on a road trip when things felt calmer in New York City. I got most of my shooting done in a few weeks."
Woodard died on Sept. 23, 1992, in the Bronx. Ephron says he was unaware of how his blinding and the miscarriage of justice that followed had emboldened a federal judge and a sitting president to pursue the destruction of legal segregation.