Race - We're Only Now Repaying a Debt, Despite Injustices Blacks Soldiered On
By Tom Teepen
Copyright 1998. Cox Newspapers. Published in the Dayton Daily News, Tuesday, July 28, 1998. Posted by permission.
Fifty years ago this week, President Harry Truman signed an executive order barring racial inequality in the military. Integration wouldn't start until two years later, forced by the need to rush troops to the Korean War, and the last all-black unit wouldn't be disbanded until 1954. Still, Truman's bold move marked the beginning of the end for one of the more tormented tales in the twisted history of American racial injustice.
Blacks had fought to win, save and expand American freedom in every one of the nation's wars, only to be rewarded after each, if rewarded at all, with meager rations from that freedom - and with quick white forgetfulness. Every debt of honor was settled on the cheap.
We were still rescuing those memories last week, and settling those debts.
Some 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fought to save the Union in the Civil War, but the forgetting began immediately. None marched in the victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue - and never mind their 16 Medals of Honor. A memorial to the black veterans was unveiled in Washington last week.
Forgotten medals given
And survivors of the 2,220 black soldiers who volunteered to leave their support units and fight besides whites in World War II's Battle of the Bulge finally received the medals last week that the Pentagon forgot to issue them after the war. Adding injury to insult, black noncoms had been reduced to privates for the battle - no risk, then, that they would give orders to whites - and never had their ranks restored.
So it has gone. Crispus Attucks was one of the five to die in the Boston Massacre, first blood in the Revolutionary War. Among the blacks who served in the war was the all-black 1st Rhode Island Regiment.
Some 350 blacks fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and a fourth of the sailors who won the war's key Battle of Lake Erie were black. Black units were crucial to the Spanish-American War victories at San Juan and Kettle Hills.
The now-famous Buffalo Soldiers protected American expansion across the West, and 400,000 blacks served in World War I, most memorably the 369th Infantry, the Harlem Hellfighters.
Blacks, relentlessly steered to fetch-and-carry roles, had to fight to fight in World War II, from infantry and tank units to the distinguished Tuskegee Airmen. And they came home to find furloughed German war prisoners welcome where they were forbidden.
Through all this, the armed forces everywhere were as segregated as the Jim Crow South, yet blacks soldiered on - an astonishing act of faith, based on precious little encouraging experience, that their nation would one day vindicate in the perfection of its justice the sacrifice they were making.
America's black newspapers called World War II the fight for two V's - victory in combat abroad and victory for racial justice at home. The first victory was complete, but although Truman's order started dramatic changes for the better, those two recent ceremonies in Washington remind us that there is still some mopping up to do on the second.
*TOM TEEPEN is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers. Address: c/o The Atlanta Constitution, P.O. Box 4689, Atlanta, Ga. 30303. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org