Orson Welles and Officer X

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, February 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: fighting injustice. 

Yesterday, you heard the story of Isaac Woodard. On the night of February 12th, 1946, a South Carolina chief of police beat him mercilessly—permanently blinding the U.S. Army Sergeant.

EICHER: The story might have disappeared if it weren’t for radio and film celebrity Orson Welles. Over the course of five weeks in the summer of 1946, Welles talked about the case during his Saturday radio commentary program. The uproar over the story eventually got the attention of President Harry Truman and galvanized a very young Civil Rights Movement. 

WORLD Correspondent Paul Butler brings the story.

WELLES: Good morning, this is Orson Welles speaking, I’d like to read you an affidavit. I, Isaac Woodward Jr, being duly sworn to depose and state as follows…

CORRESPONDENT, PAUL BUTLER: That’s how Orson Welles began his radio program 75 years ago on July 28th, 1946. He devoted the entire quarter hour to Woodard’s story. During the first two minutes, Welles read from Woodard’s affidavit.

WELLES:  When the bus got to Aiken, he got off and got the police. They didn’t give me the chance to explain, the police then struck me with a billy across the head and told me to shut up. 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, believed Woodard’s case should be known outside of South Carolina. They successfully lobbied a few newspapers across the country to pick up the story, but it didn’t get much traction. Then, Executive Secretary Walter White sent a letter to film director and producer Orson Welles. The letter included Woodard’s testimony of the event. 

WELLES: About 5:30 that evening they took me to the Veterans Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. I believe the doctor who cared for me was Dr. Clarence. I told him what had happened to me. He made no comment, but told me I should join a blind school. Sworn by me, the 23rd day of April, 1946… 

Welles then addressed the officer who blinded Woodard. 

WELLES: Now it seems the officer of the law who blinded the young Negro boy the affidavit has not been named. Until we know more about him, for just now we’ll call the policeman Officer X. You might be listening to this. I hope so. Office X I’m talking to you. 

Orson Welles promised that he would do all within his power to figure out the officer’s true identity and release it to the public. 

WELLES: We invite you to luxuriate in secrecy, for it will be brief. Go on, suckle your anonymous moment while it lasts. You’re going to be uncovered. We will blast out your name. We’ll give the world your given name, Officer X. Yes, and your so-called Christian name. It’s going to rise out of the filthy deep like the dead thing it is. We’re going to make it public with a public scandal that you dictated by failed to sign. 

A few weeks later he announced that his investigators, along with help from the NAACP and the FBI, discovered the truth:

WELLES: I have before me, wires and press releases to the effect that a policeman of Batesburg by the name of Shaw, or Shore or Shull–it is given three different ways here–the flashes just before us: Chief L.L. Shull has admitted that he was the police officer who blinded Isaac Woodward. 

A week later, Welles continued.  

WELLES: Now we have him. We won’t let him go. I promised I’d hunt him down. I have. I gave my word I’d see him unmasked. I’ve unmasked him. I’m going to haunt Police Chief Shull for all the rest of his natural life. Mr. Shull is not going to forget me. And what’s important, I’m not going to let you forget Mr. Shull.

During the original broadcast, Welles read Isaac Woodard’s claim that the beating took place in Aiken, South Carolina. It actually occurred 20 miles away: a fact that many tried using to discredit both Woodard and Welles.

WELLES: The place was Batesburg. Isaac Woodward thought it happened in Aiken. He was wrong. I’ve repeatedly explained Woodward’s mistake and repeatedly apologize. But I broadcast his affidavit, and now the city of Aiken–having banned my movies, burned the posters in the streets and hang me in effigy–is threatening, believe it or not, to sue me to the sum of $2 million. If I had all that money, honestly, I wouldn’t mind owing it to Aiken. To the pride of having finally put the blame where it belongs. The blame belongs as I say in Batesburg, Batesburg, South Carolina. 

Orson Welles successfully made Woodard’s story national news, but many accused him of attempting to incite riots and social unrest. 

WELLES: Editorials, and lots of newspapers, and lots of people are writing me to demand to know what business it is of mine. God judge me if it isn’t the most pressing business I have. The blind soldier fought for me in this war, the least I can do now is fight for him. I have eyes he hasn’t. I have a voice on the radio, he hasn’t. I was born a white man. And until a colored man is a full citizen like me. I haven’t the leisure to enjoy the freedom that colored man risked his life to maintain for me. I don’t own what I have, until he owns an equal share of it.

Orson Welles’s five broadcasts on the Woodard case also got the attention of politicians, including President Harry Truman. He demanded the Justice Department investigate. The U.S. District Court in Columbia South Carolina, eventually found police chief Shull and his officers not guilty—even though they admitted to blinding Woodard.  

So a month later, President Truman established the Civil Rights Commission, and made civil rights a domestic agenda priority. In 1948 Truman issued two executive orders. The first banned racial discrimination in the military and the second desegregated the federal government. Today, the NAACP credits Orson Welles and his radio program for making it possible.  

WELLES: No one of us will live to see a blameless peace. We strive and pray and die for what will be here when we are gone. Our children’s children are the ancestors of a free people. We send our greetings ahead of us to them, to history yet unmade. Our greetings to the generations sleeping in our loins. Be of good heart. The fight is worth it.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.

Audio recordings courtesy of Orson Welles on the Air, 1938-1946: INDIANA UNIVERSITY BLOOMINGTON

(Photo/Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library, Ben van Meerendonk / AHF) Orson Welles (right), Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. (left)

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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