History Book – A milestone in the civil rights movement

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book. 

Just two entries this week. First, a Bible translation creates controversy, and then a tragedy becomes a springboard for civil rights. Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.

HEBREWS 4:12a: For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit…

MUSIC: [How Firm a Foundation]

KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: That portion of Hebrews 4:12 in the King James Version tells about the Bible’s power, able to divide even “soul and spirit.” But 75 years ago, a new version of the Bible threatened to divide believers. 

On February 8, 1946, the New Testament portion of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published for the first time. The Old Testament was published eight years later.

With its readable, modern English, the RSV presented an alternative to the Authorized King James Version

The RSV was also the first translation of the Bible to make use of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah. But that proved controversial, when the translation committee opted to use the word “woman” in place of “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. Katherine Sakenfeld, Old Testament professor at Princeton University, explains in this 1999 Odyssey Productions documentary. 

SAKENFELD: The King James Version traditionally translated “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” and the RSV changed this based on the understanding of the Hebrew word “almah” and its meaning in the Hebrew Bible in general to “a young woman shall conceive.”  

Disapproval over the committee’s change galvanized the “King James only” movement of some Christian denominations, and it prompted some pastors to burn portions or entire copies of the RSV in protest. 

But for many, the easy-to-understand language made Scripture easier to apply. That was true for Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. 

YOUNG: When I first saw the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, it was the first Bible that I ever opened up that I could read and understand. It changed my life in more ways than I can imagine.

In 2017, President Trump took his oath of office on an RSV Bible that his mother gave him in 1955. The RSV served as the basis for the English Standard Version of the Bible in 2001. 

And now for a difficult milestone that became a rallying point for the American civil rights movement: the beating of Sergeant Isaac Woodard on February 12, 1946. 

WELLES: Officer X will never pay for the two eyes he beat out of the soldier’s head. How can you assay the gift of sight? What are they quoting today for one eye? An eye for an eye?

That’s Hollywood’s Orson Welles on his radio broadcast in 1946, talking about Woodard’s plight. Woodard was an African American U.S. Army veteran. Only a few hours after his honorable discharge, he was in his army uniform, riding a bus from Georgia to his home in South Carolina. At some point, Woodard and the bus driver had a dispute.

The bus driver called the police, who met Woodard in Batesburg, South Carolina. Police dragged Woodard off the bus and beat him with nightsticks. They took him to jail, charging him with drunkenness and disorderly conduct. That night, Police Chief Lynwood Shull permanently blinded Woodard in both eyes with a billy club. Woodard stated in court that the blinding came because he answered the officer “yes” instead of “yes sir.” 

The brutality sparked national outrage, helped in part by Welles’ radio broadcasts. Shull’s name was redacted from Woodard’s affidavit, so Welles referred to him as “Officer X.”

WELLES: Wash your hands, Officer X! Wash them well. Scrub and scour, you won’t blot out the blood of a blinded war veteran. Nor yet the color of your skin.

Police Chief Shull faced trial, openly admitting he blinded Woodard, but an all-white jury acquitted him of all charges. The defense attorney played on Confederate sympathies. Here’s a reenactment from a classroom video series on African American history.   

DEFENSE: All I can say to you fine, upstanding sons of the South is this: If you rule against police officer Shull, then let South Carolina secede again! 

The injustice caught President Harry Truman’s attention. Here he is, recounting Woodard’s story:

TRUMAN: He protested that he was just on his way home, and they charged him with being drunk and disorderly, and he wasn’t drunk at all. And he got hit over the head with a black jack, and hit across the face with a billy club and blinded him for life. 

Truman established a national interracial commission and called civil rights “a moral priority.” He submitted a civil rights bill to Congress in February 1948, and issued executive orders desegregating the armed forces and the federal government. In doing so, he made civil rights a national issue for the first time in the 20th century. 

SONG: [Keep Your Eyes On the Prize—Peter Seeger]

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book, I’m Katie Gaultney.

(Photo/Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library) Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., who was blinded during a brutal beating by the police in South Carolina, with his mother in 1946.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “History Book – A milestone in the civil rights movement

  1. Geoffrey Vanden Heuvel says:

    Thank you so much for these two history stories. I was unaware of both. Powerful food for thought and contemplation.

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