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Career of Judge Harlington Wood Jr. is focus of U. of I. Library exhibit

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Harlington Wood holding an axe over his shoulder, with Scott Lucas, Alen Barkley, and Adalai Stevenson
Click photo to enlarge
Harlington Wood, second from right, as Abraham Lincoln at New Salem, 1952, with, from left, Sen. Scott Lucas, Vice President Alben Barkley and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — An exhibit chronicling the “long and extraordinary” career of federal judge Harlington Wood Jr., a high-ranking public servant who, among other critical roles, served as chief negotiator for the U.S. Department of Justice at Wounded Knee, is running at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his alma mater.

Titled “Judge Harlington Wood, Jr.: A ‘Most Lincolnesque Man,’ ” the exhibit largely focuses on Wood’s role as negotiator during protests at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and in Washington, D.C., and at Miami Beach.

The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, runs through May 10 at the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, Room 346 Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana.

Wood, 85, lives in Petersburg, Ill., near his birthplace in Springfield. He gave his papers to the Library’s Illinois Historical Survey and Lincoln Room in 2003 and 2004.

Present as a U.S. Army officer at the surrender of Japanese forces in the Philippines in 1945, Wood was a lawyer in Springfield before being appointed to a succession of federal jobs, including U.S. Attorney, head of the civil division of the Justice Department, district judge and judge of the Court of Appeals for the seventh circuit in Chicago. He earned his bachelor’s and his law degrees at the U. of I. in 1942 and 1948, respectively.

During the 1971 MayDay demonstrations in Washington, D.C., the 1972 political conventions at Miami Beach and the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, Wood helped with negotiations between protesters and law-enforcement agencies, and coordinated the government’s on-scene response.

“His refusal to authorize the use of force at Wounded Knee worked successfully to bring about a nonviolent end to the conflict,” said Adam Groves, a graduate student in library science at Illinois, who processed the Wood papers and produced the exhibit.

“Attorney General Richard Kleindienst described Wood as ‘the most Lincolnesque man I’ve known,’ ” Groves said.

Appointed by three presidents – Eisenhower, Nixon (twice) and Ford – Wood described himself in his personal account of Wounded Knee as “an ordinary Midwestern lawyer who unexpectedly found himself in the middle of an extraordinary situation and had to do something about it.”

The incident at Wounded Knee began on Feb. 27, 1973, when some 200 armed members of the American Indian Movement seized control of the site, taking several hostages and demanding that Nixon negotiate a settlement with them based on Sioux treaties.

Instead, Nixon called for force: 300 FBI agents, U.S. marshals and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials surrounded Wounded Knee. Two divisions of federal troops with helicopters, jetfighters, tanks, machine guns and field rockets were called in as support.

On March 12, Wood was sent to take charge of the deteriorating situation, in his words, to “recapture Wounded Knee for the government” by “forceful law-enforcement means.”

Against all advice, the 6-foot-4-inch government representative in buckskin jacket, jeans and boots – his ranch clothes from Illinois – arrived at Wounded Knee “alone, unarmed and unprotected,” Groves said.

Wood, disagreeing that all peaceful options had been explored, urged a program of “continued patience, discussion and negotiation, and as a last resort before force, of seeking some judicial assistance from the federal court in South Dakota.”

He later wrote that author Dee Brown’s description of the first Wounded Knee incident in 1890 – when the Army massacred 300 Sioux – “flashed through my mind. I determined that I absolutely would not preside over a possible second massacre at Wounded Knee, even if it meant submitting my resignation then and there and returning to private practice in Springfield. This was one mistake that I was determined not to make.”

Recalling the scene, Ramon Roubideaux, attorney for the Oglala Sioux, was quoted as saying: “It was quite a sight to see Wood stride into Wounded Knee. He was the first real man to come along offering that we get together and settle this thing.

“He took the bull by the horns and said he wanted to end this shooting. If there were more like him in government, we wouldn’t have any problems.”

Wood entered the compound several times over the next few weeks until illness forced him to return to Washington, D.C. “Although he was not in command when the AIM peacefully surrendered to federal forces on May 7, Wood is widely credited with turning the tide toward a peaceful resolution,” Groves said.

Among the items on display are artifacts, photographs and presidential certificates, many of them chronicling Wood’s time in the Justice Department. For example, the exhibit includes a 1971 permit he issued to anti-war protesters; correspondence from Warren E. Burger, J. Edgar Hoover, William Rehnquist and Donald Rumsfeld; and a memo detailing the immigration status of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The exhibit also illustrates Wood’s career as a thespian. Tall and lean, he played Lincoln in “Forever This Land” at New Salem, Ill., in 1951 and 1952. Wood’s well-received portrayal of Lincoln by The New York Times’ drama critic Brooks Atkinson and others led to many other performances, including one at the University of Illinois in 1958.

Wood also was an officer in the 7th Illinois Cavalry Reactivated, a Civil War re-enactment troop. The unit rode in many celebrations, including President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parade.

More about the collection is at

For more information about the exhibit, contact Groves at 217-333-1777 or at