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Rep. Jim Clyburn introduces bill named for SC vet to get Black WWII soldiers full benefits

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Isaac Woodard for Hicks

Decorated World War II veteran Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr., who was beaten and blinded by White police officers near Batesburg in 1946. The brutality inflicted against Woodard by a Southern police chief is credited with inspiring President Harry Truman to integrate the military in 1948. J. DeBisse/Library of Congress, NAACP Records

Isaac Woodard Jr. returned from World War II unscathed — but on the Greyhound bus ride home, police stopped him near Batesburg where a group of officers proceeded to beat the Army veteran with nightsticks and gouge his eyes until he went blind. 

The bus driver called police on Woodard because he asked to use the restroom during a pit stop. 

The Fairfield County native's bludgeoning on Feb. 12, 1946 sparked a national outcry for racial justice and later a federal investigation by President Harry S. Truman. The police chief was indicted and went to trial in South Carolina, but he was acquitted by an all-White jury.

Despite Woodard's service to the United States, the soldier was still treated as unequal when he came back home. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn said it's time to reconcile that history.

The Democratic House Majority Whip from Columbia honored Woodard's life this week when he introduced a bill named, in part, for the South Carolina veteran which aims to give surviving Black World War II veterans and their families full benefits from the GI Bill that they may have been denied.

Many African-American service members, like Woodard, returned home to segregation, Jim Crow-era laws and racist political policies.

Election 2020 DNC

In this image from video, Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks from Charleston during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17, 2020. Clyburn has introduced a bill that aims to give surviving Black World War II veterans and their families full benefits from the GI Bill that they may have been denied. File/Democratic National Convention via AP

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 provided low-cost mortgages, low-interest business loans, unemployment compensation and education assistance to returning soldiers. But many local and state-level veterans administrations, especially in the South, denied these benefits to Black citizens, Clyburn said. 

On the 79th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Clyburn and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., introduced the "Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr. And Sgt. Joseph H. Maddox GI Bill Repair Act Of 2020." 

Maddox was a World War II-era veteran who was accepted to Harvard University for a master’s degree program but was denied a VA loan because of the color of his skin.

"African-American soldiers served valiantly during World War II only to be denied the welcome home salutes and benefits they richly deserved," Clyburn said in a statement. "These benefits are only the baseline for what these American heroes are owed for their noble service to this nation and the subsequent indignities they were forced to endure upon their return."

There are approximately 19,000 Black World War II veterans surviving in the United States, according to a VA report. Nearly 1 million African Americans served in the Pacific and European theaters. 

Surviving members of the "Greatest Generation" are dwindling every day, so Clyburn's bill primarily benefits living descendants of former Black World War II veterans.

The bill extends access to the VA Loan Guaranty Program and education assistance to the surviving spouse and certain direct descendants of Black World War II veterans who were alive at the time of the GI Bill’s enactment. 

Additionally, it mandates a government watchdog report outlining the number of veterans who originally received benefits and commissions a panel to study inequities in military benefits provided to female and minority service members.

Clyburn's bill comes amid major scrutiny this month over a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act to rename military bases that are named for Confederate generals, and after President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday picked retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of defense, the first African American to hold the office.

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

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