Many people in Springfield, who hold a variety of views about politics and law, have praised the late Harlington Wood as an individual of integrity and accomplishment. Wood’s memoirs, An Unmarked Trail: The Odyssey of a Federal Judge, printed by H. C. Johnson Press in Rockford, should leave most readers with a similar assessment. With great modesty and without exaggeration, Judge Wood anecdotally recounts some of his important life experiences, from his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln at New Salem Park, and his love of horses, to his central role in resolving the Wounded Knee crisis in the early 1970s, and eventually his judicial appointments.
Although subtitled “the odyssey of a federal judge,” the bulk of the book focuses on the experiences of this favorite son of Illinois in his public service experience with the United States Justice Department rather than his role as a judge. It is our good fortune to have this memoir to rely on; Harlington Wood, Jr. died Dec. 29 at age 88.
Wood was an extraordinary individual from an extraordinary generation. The 20th century was a time when major historical events followed in quick succession. Because of major technological developments in communication, people all over the world were increasingly aware of what was happening around the world: Word War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the revolution of the young in the 1960s, the protests against the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the fall of the Berlin Wall, etc. It seems that time has become more compressed and that significant change is coming faster and faster. Wood was one of those individuals who, by a variety of life chances, were on the periphery and occasionally at the center of these events.
The most important example of those life chances was Wood’s high role in the Justice Department during the Nixon Watergate years, an experience he describes as uncomfortable. His presence, though, had little to do with Nixon’s scandal, but rather that he was the single most critical Justice Department representative who resolved the Wounded Knee crisis.
The Pine Ridge, S. D., reservation was in upheaval in the early 1970s. A group of Native Americans formed the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis, Minn., and quickly became a strong organization for Indian rights. In 1973 they were involved in a major confrontation, resulting in the takeover of the small town of Wounded Knee, S.D. (For more on its historical importance, see Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.)
The confrontation reduced itself to a conflict between the governmental “hard liners” who wanted to move in with military force, versus those who advocated negotiation, discussion and compromise. This was the tension that characterized much of the 1960s during civil rights, student and anti-war confrontations — one that Wood had already dealt with in the anti-Vietnam march on Washington a couple of years earlier. Fortunately, an individual like Harlington Wood was present to insist upon a nonviolent resolution to the struggle. Wood describes the infighting between the Justice Department, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local law enforcement. Despite this, he insisted that everything be done to achieve a peaceful ending — which would not have happened had he not been present as the Justice Department representative.
Many readers may come away unsatisfied by the book, wanting to know much more about the man and the events he encountered. It isn’t an in-depth, philosophical book. It is highly anecdotal and descriptive and leaves out major contextual discussions, critical assessments and even historical and political appreciation of the events that Wood was involved in. It moves back and forth from the trivial, e.g., his meeting and a picture of Jayne Mansfield, to the highly important role he played at Wounded Knee. Yet those who wish to read about another central Illinois achiever will appreciate the book. One cannot leave this story without an appreciation of the character of an individual, the type of person we desperately need today to help us through the difficult decisions of our times.
An Unmarked Trail is available for $20 at Prairie Archives.
Larry Golden is an emeritus professor of political
studies and legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He can be reached at email@example.com.