COLUMN: A place of unity, a symbol of hope should take root in Batesburg

This artist’s rendering of the proposed Unity Park was presented to Batesburg-Leesville Town Council in February as part of the Town’s Master Plan.

Four small American flags, planted at the foot of the historical marker, gently swayed in a warm afternoon breeze. I looked down at them, and a tear formed in the corner of my eye.

“Here I am,” I whispered as I fixed my gaze on those red-white-and-blue standards. “I am standing on an otherwise nondescript street corner in my home state, here in the United States of America in 2020 – and it seems that so little has changed after much, much too long.”

My lips actually struggled to form the word “United” as I thought of all that conspires to divide and destroy humanity.

I turned my eyes slowly, solemnly up to the tall silver marker and began to study the words engraved there. The story chronicled on this spot had been somewhat familiar to me before today, but I felt my face get warm against the afternoon sun as I read each line.

I was suddenly ashamed and embarrassed that I had never before stopped here to fully digest how this little-known chapter in American history has been memorialized in this place. The marker’s engraving began to weave its sad tale:

Sgt. Isaac Woodard, a black soldier, was removed from a bus in Batesburg and arrested on Feb. 12, 1946, after a dispute with the bus driver. Woodard was beaten and blinded by a town police officer and the next day convicted in town court for “drunk and disorderly.”

Here on this very spot, the all-too-familiar tragedy of Isaac Woodard unfolded. I immediately wondered how many of the thousands now chanting the name “George Floyd” on crowded streets all over America have ever heard the name “Isaac Woodard.”

If they have heard of him, I also wondered just how many parallels they might draw between what transpired on that Minneapolis street corner last week for all the world to see and what happened quietly on this Batesburg street corner 74 years ago?

The incident led Harry Truman to form a Council on Civil Rights and issue Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948.

A violent, repulsive incident in tiny Batesburg, South Carolina, somehow captured the attention of the President of the United States, who ordered a federal investigation into Sgt. Isaac Woodard’s beating. This pivotal moment also inspired President Truman to act decisively to tear down racial barriers within the United States military.

Three-quarters of a century hence, an incident in Minneapolis, Minnesota, prompted another President to quickly erect a fortress around the White House then call in the South Carolina National Guard and other military forces to defend “the People’s House” against protesters calling for racial justice.

Indeed, it seems that at least a few things have changed in the course of 74 years.

The police officer was charged with violating Woodard’s civil rights but was acquitted by an all-white jury.

The four police officers who participated in the death of George Floyd last week have been arrested, but only time will tell what fate a jury ultimately decides for them. Meanwhile, the court of public opinion rages on as the most damning evidence in the case – a cell phone video of George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” as a white cop kneels on his neck – is replayed hundreds of times daily on worldwide television.

Way back in 1946, there were no cell phones or global news networks. If there had been, the unblinking eye of the camera might have recorded the attorney for the cop who blinded Isaac Woodard shouting racial slurs at the victim in open court and telling the jury that if they found the officer guilty, “then let this South Carolina secede again.”

That all-white jury 74 years ago took only 28 minutes to acquit the policeman. Let us pray that in 2020, true justice will prevail however long it takes to arrive at a verdict.  

The result troubled the presiding judge, J. Waties Waring, who would go on to issue landmark civil rights rulings, including a dissent in Briggs v. Elliott (1952), which became a model for Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

In January 1952, a white judge – the son of a Confederate Army soldier, a man whose ancestors owned slaves – sat on a three-judge panel and cast the lone vote against upholding segregated schools as lawful in South Carolina. Judge Waring wrote in his scathing dissent that “segregation is per se inequality.”

The resulting 2-1 vote would keep black children and white children in separate but clearly unequal schools. However, Briggs v. Elliott became part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ultimately led to school desegregation, a groundbreaking victory in the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement.

Daring to stand up boldly against racism even among his judicial peers, Judge Julius Waties Waring would act on conscience in subsequent cases after seeing firsthand the inherent injustice of a case involving a black Army veteran whose eyes were gouged out by a white Batesburg policeman who was never held accountable.

In 2018 a judge, on the town’s motion, expunged Woodard’s conviction.

It took 72 years, but finally there was some small measure of justice for Sgt. Isaac Woodard. Sadly, he would never know his own vindication; he died in the Bronx in 1992 with his name still on the court records here in South Carolina. Only true leadership would eventually erase that shameful blemish on history, albeit decades too long overdue.

The following year, the historical marker bearing a brief summary of Woodard’s whole tragic story was dedicated at the corner where this man who served his country valiantly in World War II was dragged off a Greyhound bus and forever maimed by police brutality.

When I finished reading the marker inscription, I was moved to kneel at its base and pray for peace and healing in America. I asked God to wipe away all racial injustice from this troubled and divided land. I also confessed and asked His forgiveness for those times when, in my own broken human imperfection, I have foolishly thought, spoken or acted in ways that have been disrespectful to people of color.

And who among us does not have reason today to ask such forgiveness? Who among us does not feel some shame?

I arose from my knees, turned and looked up Fulmer Street, past the empty storefronts in downtown Batesburg, toward the railroad tracks. Immediately, my thoughts fell on a document full of maps and colorful renderings presented to the Batesburg-Leesville Town Council this past February.

In that Master Plan Report, land planners and designers cast an ambitious vision for a revitalized Batesburg-Leesville with two vibrant downtown business districts connected by a railside trail, new tree-lined sidewalks with elegant lampposts, a renovated town auditorium, and lush parks where white, black, Asian and Hispanic children might run, laugh and play together with the innocence of youth. The Master Plan’s grand vision, fully realized, carries a potential price tag approaching $12 million or more.

Tucked deep within that same plan is a concept called Unity Park. This oasis in downtown Batesburg would be a place of remembrance and reflection with shade trees, large patches of bright green grass and brick walkways guiding visitors toward the center of the compact park.

There, mere steps away from where racially-motivated police violence ripped at the very fabric of the American experience seven decades ago, three brick circles would link together in an ancient symbol called Borromean Rings – a symbol of strength through unity. This design, thousands of years old and often found in ancient Roman and Viking artifacts, traditionally bears the meaning that if any one of these rings should be cut or otherwise taken away, the rest would fall apart.

And so it is with the human condition. We are all one people – white, black, whatever our hue or culture – and when we hurt one another, all of humanity suffers injury. When we fail to love and care for one another, we recklessly discard the very essence of what makes us human beings.

There is strength in unity, and we must strive for that interconnected strength always and in all things.

The land where the Isaac Woodard historical marker now stands and where Unity Park might one day rest is privately owned, so the Town somehow would need to acquire the property to build this visionary park. The designers of the Town’s Master Plan estimate that construction of Unity Park could cost the Town as little as $350,000 upwards to $400,000.

In just over a year and a half, the Town has already collected more than $600,000 in hospitality tax revenue, two cents at a time, on prepared meals and drinks consumed around our community. By state law, these hospitality tax proceeds must be spent on tourism-related projects.

Still, with that much money already in the Town coffers for projects to attract visitors to Batesburg-Leesville, who knows how long it might be until Unity Park becomes a reality – if it ever does? What other projects will be funded by the Town before the first shovel of dirt is turned at Unity Park? Only time will tell.

I, for one, eagerly await the day when I can walk into those interlocking circles at the center of Unity Park, fall to my knees again and pray for lasting change across this nation and in this community. I truly will rejoice when I can humbly, solemnly move in that space, stand in the center of those Borromean Rings hand-in-hand with people of all cultures and proudly stand up for strength in unity here in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina USA.

We know, of course, that symbolism alone will not erase the systemic human failure of racism – the wickedness that cost Isaac Woodard his eyesight and George Floyd his life, among countless other crimes against people of color. True change begins first in the human heart, when people are convicted by their conscience, by the Holy Spirit, by the better angels of human nature, by simple decency to do much better by our fellow man (and woman) and to act decisively – not with malice, judgment and contempt but with kindness, compassion and brotherly love.

Still, because symbols do hold power, maybe just maybe if the whole Batesburg-Leesville community would rally behind bringing the hopeful vision of Unity Park into reality much sooner than later, this space would become in these troubled times a beacon for meaningful dialogue. Unity Park could be a tangible and lasting representation of the noble call to action that we all must focus not on those things that divide us but instead on the simple, beautiful humanity that connects and unites us all.