A United States district judge reviews the legacy of the case of Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran who in 1946 was beaten and permanently blinded by police officers in South Carolina, setting off a national controversy that led to important legal and political shifts that would influence the coming civil rights movement.
... remarkable ... Gergel’s book is a revealing window into both the hideous racial violence and humiliation of segregation in the period immediately after World War II, and the heroic origins of the legal crusade to destroy Jim Crow ... Gergel brings his riveting narrative to a climax with the Briggs v. Elliott case of 1951 ... The great value of Unexampled Courage is that it might garner a broad audience for the kinds of heroism involved in this history of litigation, all of which was a necessary prelude to the direct-action crusade of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Gergel may place too much emphasis on individual agency in this story, but it is impossible to deny the pivotal role of these figures...
In Unexampled Courage...federal judge Richard Gergel presents a deeply researched account of Woodard’s tragic story and weaves it into a larger narrative. Gergel chooses as his core theme racial redemption rather than racial violence ... Some readers of his book, however, might draw from it more disturbing conclusions about America’s racial past—as well as its present ... Unexampled Courage also serves as the definitive account of Woodard’s blinding and Shull’s prosecution. Gergel delivers some stern judgments about the competence of the federal prosecutors who brought an 'ill-prepared' case against Shull ... American race relations have changed markedly since Woodard’s tragic case, and that case, as Gergel convincingly argues, played some role in producing the change.
With his judicial expertise, the author provides important insight into the legal and political calculations that were behind the federal prosecution of Woodard’s main attacker, Batesburg police chief Lynwood Shull ... The problem for Mr. Gergel, however, is that the single incident of Isaac Woodard’s blinding, as horrific as it was, can’t sustain the weight his narrative asks it to bear. Both Truman and Waring’s evolutions on racial issues were determined by a number of influences ... the politics of the day complicate any discussion of Truman’s 'awakening.' His civil-rights actions can’t be separated from his 1948 campaign strategy ... Waring’s situation was no less complex.