Drops and Salve

Isaac Woodard was born on a sharecropper farm in Fairfield County, South Carolina in 1919. When the United States entered World War II, Woodard enlisted in the Army and served in a segregated support unit during the campaign to liberate New Guinea. Woodard rose to the rank of sergeant and earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

At the end of the war, like other soldiers, he embarked on the arduous journey home to what should have been a grateful nation. After traveling by ship from Manila to New York City, he traveled by troop train to Camp Gordon near Augusta, Georgia. On February 12, 1946, Woodard stepped aboard a Greyhound bus for the final leg of his journey home. He was still wearing his Army uniform. Having survived the perils of the Pacific theater, and after traveling halfway around the world, he was soon to face the most dangerous part of his journey: A bus ride through South Carolina.

When the bus reached Batesburg, the bus driver stopped and called the police. The reason for this call is unclear. The bus was behind schedule, and perhaps Woodard was insufficiently obsequious to the bus driver when he asked to use the restroom. Regardless of what triggered the driver, nothing can excuse the horrific treatment he received after the police arrived—the beatings, the gouging of his eyes, and the callous delay in providing medical care.

Woodard survived but never regained his sight.

Publicity of the attack on Woodard soon galvanized the nation’s attention. Orson Welles vividly described the attack on his national radio program and vowed to bring the then-unknown law-enforcement officer to justice. Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Woody Guthrie, and other celebrities performed at a benefit concert for Woodard in New York City.

President Truman, furious at the treatment of a returning veteran, ordered a full FBI investigation to identify and prosecute the law-enforcement officer responsible. Eventually, investigators identified and indicted the Batesburg police chief.

In his book Unexampled Courage, author Richard Gergel frames the trial as a gross injustice. The federal prosecutors were ill-prepared, FBI agents actively undermined the case, and the town doctor testified on behalf of the police chief. After charging the all-white jury, the judge took a 20-minute walk through downtown Columbia to avoid “the indignity of a 5-minute verdict.” The jury did not disappoint and acquitted the police chief unanimously by the time the judge returned from his stroll.

The case of Isaac Woodard captured worldwide attention and generated outrage—at least outside of the segregated South. This incident, and other attacks throughout the South, prompted President Truman to create the Civil Rights Commission, ban racial discrimination in the armed forces, and integrate the federal government. The trial was a “baptism of fire” that propelled the civil rights movement into the 1950s and 1960s.

At the benefit concert for Woodard, folk singer Woody Guthrie performed his ballad, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.” The final two verses go like this:

They drug me to the courtroom, and I could not see the judge
He fined me fifty dollars for raising all the fuss
The doctor finally got there but it took him two whole days
He handed me some drops and salve and told me to treat myself.

It's now you've heard my story, there's one thing I can't see
How you could treat a human like they have treated me
I thought I fought on the islands to get rid of their kind
But I can see the fight lots plainer now that I am blind.
From the bus driver who used law enforcement to settle a personal grievance to the small-town police chief who had no doubt he could act with impunity, to the privileged all-white jury that unanimously rendered a travesty of justice—these are the easily recognizable agents of systemic racism. However, Guthrie saves his most biting criticism for the final character in the ballad: The doctor.

It is remarkable how often physicians find themselves at the crossroads of social justice. From witnessing the tragic consequences of violence to advocating for the appropriate use of science during the current pandemic, a physician’s duty to be a trustworthy advocate for human wellbeing should always be paramount. The town doctor who “treated” Isaac Woodard, and testified on behalf of his tormentor, violated this sacred duty.

The opportunity to strike a blow for justice is rarely as clear-cut and sensational as the blinding of Isaac Woodard. However, there are many opportunities for addressing the inequalities in healthcare. These injustices may be less obvious, but as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, they are still “the most shocking and inhumane.”

We should start by redoubling our efforts to promote the expansion of Medicaid in South Carolina. There is no sound economic rationale for rejecting federal funds to expand Medicaid. Rejecting expansion leaves over 100,000 of our fellow citizens with no realistic access to health insurance. Those left in the coverage gap are disproportionately people of color, and the fact that a map of the states still rejecting expansion looks a lot like a map of the Confederacy is circumstantial evidence of a subconscious intent.

We must continue to advocate for a science-based approach to the pandemic, for sensible infection control practices to protect our schoolchildren, and for greater acceptance of vaccinations. In addition, we should work with our specialty colleagues, DHEC, and the Board of Medical Examiners to counter medical misinformation and the growing menace of anti-science propaganda and quackery.

Medicine is a profession, and professionalism is a social contract. In exchange for granting us the authority to practice and the privilege of self-regulation, society expects physicians to shoulder the burden of social responsibility. This is a sacred duty, and we must be proactive with our advocacy. It is simply not enough to show up—after the fact—with “drops and salve” to assuage the victims.

This article was published in South Carolina Family Physician.