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It’s What Americans Do – Charneice McKenzie – Medium

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Memorial Day at Épinal American Cemetery in France.

Last week I posted the article, “The Crime of Innocence: White Denial, Black Rebellion and the Cost of American Obliviousness” on my Facebook with the status, “There is no, ‘yea but…’ response to this article. Only an ‘Ah-ha’ or ‘Dang, that’s messed up.’ This author has a history education. The entire piece is quotable.” Then I selected two of the most paradigm shifting quotes from the article discussing America’s history with violent protests.

The responses to the post were very emotional and continued for days after. Although the very second paragraph of the article discouraged the lecturing by white people on, “the proper response to police brutality, economic devastation, and perpetual marginality, having ourselves rarely been the targets of any of these,” individuals still felt inclined anyway. They told me that the proper response to the constant threat of violence is to be more understanding of the perpetrators, more loving, non-violent and by living the Bible. That way, gradually, after some generations, the senseless killings of blacks in our country would end. I liken that advice to child-free individuals spouting parenting advice or singles giving marriage advice. Such people do not have the necessary credentials of lived experience to give advice. People verbally assaulted me rather than the article. They twisted my words and attempted to smear my character. In fact, during their assault, the article was scarcely even referenced. The most peculiar personal attack came from a fellow service member whom I attended professional military education. He stated:

“And I’m astonished that someone who so strongly feels this country is systemically racist would willingly serve on its behalf in uniform.”

“And I renew my astonishment that you would serve a country whose people, by and large, you believe to be all subconsciously racist, regardless of the words in their Constitution.*”

The service member ended his monologue by saying the only racism he sees is from people pointing out racism like me (insert thinking emoji on how that works).

Being a historian, I’m mindful of General Custer’s lesson on wise battle picking. However, with the odds weighed, I figure it’s worth the effort to address because I find it strange such a statement would be made by an educated military officer. Perhaps other military members have the same view, and for the sake of their black troops, they need some cross-cultural awareness. I believe a thorough, unsanitized history education would solve many of our nation’s problems, so, in homage to the nearing Memorial Day holiday, I’d like to offer some Black American Military history.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a black military service member who does not believe America has a systemic problem with racism. To even suggest that people not serve their country because they know that systemic racism exists in their country illustrates the exact sort of naiveté discussed in the article. It also demonstrates a lack of history. It shouldn’t be too astonishing that a black American would serve their country and still recognize the country’s struggles with racism since we have examples of black Americans fighting for liberty since at least 1754. Each one of them knew racism existed. Are people being taught that heralded Generals Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. were without beliefs that systemic racism exists? Do people think James Webster Smith, Henry O. Flipper, Carl Brashear, Robert Smalls, Alix Pasquet, Martin Delany, Charles McGee, Isaac Woodward, and Lee Archer didn’t recognize the systemic racism of America? Do we believe the Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo Soldiers, or the first black Marines (who are just now being acknowledged) were aloof to the presence of endemic racism?

f any military person needs to look at any of these names up to know who they are, you are exemplifying systemic racism in military history education. If you can name more Confederate soldiers than historical American black soldiers, you are evidence that prejudice and racial bias exists in one of the most common facets of American life, education. If you don’t recognize any of the names I mentioned and choose to continue to be ignorant of the contributions they made to America’s freedom, that is the biggest misfortune. You don’t know, and you don’t want to know. That’s the root of the problem.

Revolutionary War Minuteman, Lemuel Haynes wrote, “Liberty is equally as precious to a black man, as it is to a white one, and bondage as equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other.” He shared similar views as me on racism and military service, yet when King George dared tax America, he soldiered up. I think it goes without saying that all black soldiers during the Civil War “strongly feels this country is systemically racist” so we won’t delve into that war, but let’s learn the stories of black vets during the 20th century.

The song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve seen Paris” can describes Black soldiers returning home from WWI. Through their experiences in France, where no one told them where they couldn’t go and what they couldn’t do, Black American soldiers began to recognize how oppressive life in America was. This is an experience still felt by Black American military members today when they are stationed abroad and return home to America.

The year after WWI, the KKK grew and more “than seventy Black Americans were lynched during the first year following the war, some of them were returned soldiers still in uniform.” You can find stories of black soldiers returning home from war, readying to hug their parents only to find out they had one parent left because their one of their parents had been lynched while they were fighting a war against tyranny. With all of this direct contact with racial oppression of previous black service members, somehow modern-day service members believe that the belief in the existence of systemic racism and military service are mutually exclusive?

During the second World War, black soldiers strove for the Double V-victory at home and abroad; Democracy at home and overseas. Victory in America seemed to be a greater struggle than success against the Nazis. Countless black veterans were lynched, castrated, dismembered and burned alive post-WWII. The United States Military or government did nothing to support their black veterans. They came back, too hoo-rah’ed up, too proud to be American. Their fellow countrymen reminded that they did not regard black people as fellow Americans. Without provocation, racist white Americans gouged out the eyes of twenty-seven-year-old black WWII vet, Sergeant Isaac Woodward, in Georgia while still in his Class As.

Roy Wright, one of the Scottsboro Boys, was 12-years-old when Alabama’s criminal justice system accused and convicted him of raping a white girl. Even though 1931 DNA evidence easily proved otherwise, he narrowly escaped the death sentence that the rest of his peers received. Even after this racial injustice he still volunteered to serve in the Army.

Thirty-year Congressman Charles Diggs was subjected to Jim Crow treatment while attending the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers. Based on his position as the founding chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and his leadership the boycott of President Nixon’s State of the Union address after Nixon refused to meet and discuss relevant issues of black American people, it’s safe to say Congressman Diggs was well aware of America’s problem with institutional racism. Yet, he still served in the army during World War II.

Aaron Henry was born in Jim Crow-reigning, Dublin, Mississippi in 1922. After enlisting in the Army and serving overseas, Henry realized the racism he endured in his hometown was not normal! When Henry came home, he learned veteran’s benefits, like being poll tax exempt, didn’t apply to black veterans. Bigots chained him to a garbage truck and led through the streets of Clarksdale, MS. with legal impunity. Best believe he believed this veteran knew racism existed.

Sammy Younge, Jr. volunteered to serve in the Navy right after high school. After his discharge, he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute as a Poli-sci major and got involved in SNCC and was on Pettus Bridge when Alabama police attacked on Bloody Sunday. Suffice that enough to say that Younge was a firm believer in the institutional racism of America. He was murdered in 1966 for using a white bathroom in Tuskeegee, Alabama.

Louis Allen served during World War II and was harassed by the KKK after witnessing them murder another man. When he reached out to his government (FBI) for help, the FBI alerted the police/KKK, assisting the plot to have him shot in the head twice on his own property with a shotgun. Silas Hunt, the first black student to integrate the University of Arkansas and the first ever admitted to a professional program ever in the south, was a Battle of the Bulge Purple Heart vet.

Lyman T. Johnson, who integrated the University of Kentucky six years before Brown challenged the Topeka’s Board of Ed, was a WWII Navy Officer. Because he enlisted with more education than the white officers appointed over him, he commissioned as an officer, but it was made clear that the Navy would refuse to promote and that his unit wouldn’t be making any more black ensigns. Pretty sure he received the message was loud and clear that racial inequality was at play.

A Tuskegee Airman I once met while I served Alabama made history more relatable when encouraging me to remember he wasn’t always old. He was once a young, 20-something-year-old pilot, with the same hopes, dreams, and confidence of young pilots today. He explained how he and his fellow airmen strutted around Fort Knox Kentucky in their flight jackets. However, when it came time to ride the bus home, he was in the back. When it came time to grab lunch, he had to go around back from grab and go. Heck, Tuskegee was a research project of the Army War College to try to prove blacks were unfit to fly. Talk about systemic racism. Even so, black folks volunteered to be part of the experiment by the hundreds.

For Memorial Day 2013, I had the privilege of visiting Épinal American Cemetery in France. Since the cemetery was without tourists, I got a very personal tour by the caretaker. He told the story of a black gold-star mother of a WWII soldier visiting her son’s gravesite. She waited until all the white gold-star mothers were directed to their child’s plot before asking, “Where is the colored cemetery? Or the colored section” And when the groundskeeper told they don’t do colored cemeteries, all soldiers are buried next to their comrades in arms, she was so overwhelmed that her son received the same honor in death as everyone else. Is it any surprise that a soldier, whose mother expected that racism would still exist even in death, and a soldier who couldn’t fight a war in an integrated unit, would have the illusion that his country was without institutional racism? You could place a safe bet that her son was aware of the institutional racism in his country.

Thurgood Marshall was nearly lynched when he attempted to represent black war vets during the Columbia, Tennessee Race Riots that all started when a black Navy man told a white man it was not acceptable to threaten his mother. You best believe all those vets and Marshall believed there was something gravely wrong with their homeland and they still served.

The military employed racism toward Koreans during the Korean War as war propaganda to motivate white American troops to be ruthless toward the enemy. Black forces, acutely aware of anti-black racism and not motivated to fight, lost faith in their leadership. Anti-black racism in the Korean War led to a lack of confidence and respect between black troops and white commanders. It led to failed missions and failed units. Military education and training often sanitizes the story of Chappie James. “He experienced racism first hand” is as detailed as the military is will to get. Then military history education spins it as an example of, “you too can work your way out of racism just like Chappie James.” The thing is, black people have always been hard workers, but has never stopped racism.


Although Vietnam was America’s first racially integrated conflict, the war was rife with racial strife. Troops still experienced segregated quarters and units. Black soldiers identified more with the oppression of the Vietcong than America’s championing of democracy abroad. Although black men and women made up 11% of the US population at the time and 9% of the military community, they made up 50% of front line infantry, in June 1969, 41% of recruits, and 20% of the war deaths. Forty percent of black soldiers returned home with PTSD compared to 20% of white soldiers. Coincidence? With the draft, black panthers were put in situations where they needed to depend on Klansmen as battle buddies, often with disastrous outcomes.

Jimmy Lee Jackson served his country in Vietnam -before the draft (volunteered)…then went on to serve his country in the battle for civil rights. While demonstrating his desire to utilize his constitutional rights to vote by walking in circles around the Selma courthouse, police started beating his 80+ year-old grandpa (the state of Alabama didn’t record the births of black folks back then, so we’re not really sure of the grandfather’s exact age) and mother with clubs. Jimmy led his family to safety, but a bigot shot him in the stomach with his frail grandpa and mother as witnesses. While the 26-years-old clung life in the hospital for the rest of the week, Alabama police served him an arrest warrant. He lost that battle and his grandparents buried in the old slave cemetery beside his dad. You best believe a young black man from rural Alabama knew first-hand institutional racism existed more than anyone else in the country. He still volunteered to serve his country.

White Vietnam War soldiers refused to allow black soldiers in their jeeps. Race riots broke out on Navy ships. White soldiers could wave their confederate flags (and no, it wasn’t to preserve their heritage) but a black soldier had to remove a “black is beautiful” poster. Senior officers ignored white soldiers with “F*ck the war” sentiments. However, senior officers punished black soldiers with the same sentiments whereas enforcement of standards of dress and grooming overlooked white troops with long, hippie-like, surfer-style hair. Army barbers couldn’t or wouldn’t cut black hair, yet the slightest appearance of an afro sent them to jail. Having to see, “I’d rather kill a nigger than a gook” graffiti in barracks and stalls made it challenging to differentiate enemy from countrymen. The Vietcong were quick to detect and exploit the racial weakness within the US forces with psychological operations using authentic images of US police n officers beating black civil rights workers back home to weaken morale. That happened. MLK, Jr. challenged LBJ that he could send troops to Vietnam but not to Alabama and that was a shared concept across black America. Still, all those back Americans performed their duty.

Veterans in Academia
After being repeatedly rejected, 19-year-old, Hamilton Holmes finally registered for classes at the University of Georgia to chants of “2–4–6–8 we don’t want to integrate” and of course, the predictable racial epitaphs. UGA’s admission staff went on to interrogate Charlayne Hunter, an 18-year-old who integrated UGA with Holmes, about any illegitimate children she might have if she had ever been a prostitute, the STD history of her family, and all the speeding tickets of her family before they would admit her to the school. None of these questions were asked of white students or had any bearing on her academic capabilities. The University of Georgia suspended the two black students after the white student body engaged in a hate-filled race riot outside their dorm. After integrating the 175-year-old University of Georgia, Hamilton Holmes went on to integrate Emery Medical. Even after all the strife that his countrymen put him through on his quest to higher education, and although he had a distinguished medical career, Hamilton decided to serve his country as an Army Doc (starting his career off as a Major).

After serving in the Air Force for nearly a decade, James Meredith applied to Ol’ Miss. With his stellar academic credentials from Jackson State, he was accepted, based on merit. That is until Ol’ Miss became aware of his brown skin. Even after almost a decade of “separate but equal” policy change, the policy of Ol’ Miss remained the same. It took 500 US Marshalls, the US Army, and the US border patrol for James Meredith to register for classes. James Meredith led the “March Against Fear.” As he walked from Memphis to Jackson, racists shot him on the second day of the march. It’s no doubt with the race riots that ensued after he started school and his shooting left no doubt in his mind that his country had a culture of racism, and yet, he still made the decision to serve.

Donald Sampson was a First Lieutenant in the Army throughout WWII, attended Temple University School of Law after the war and dedicated the rest of his life to leading educational integration in South Carolina. He was a leader in the Army, leader in multiple civic organizations in his community, and active in his church.

James L. Solomon, who integrated the University of South Carolina in 1963, also served in the United States Air Force. Suffice the experience of having to integrate a university, proves he was aware of systemic racism.

Medgar Evers was part of the supply convoy of D-Day+1. He survived Nazi Germany but couldn’t escape Jim Crow, Mississippi. He knew America had institutional racism and still served in the military without benefits.
 Born on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, Amzie More worked alongside Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers. His work in securing the freedoms for the black Americans that came after him indicate that he was not clueless to the race relations in the U.S. Still served in the United States Army.

21st Century

During the Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts, some white Mississippians and Louisianians preferred to suffer on their rooftops than to be rescued by black National Guard heroes, but that’s not a story that often gets told. After returning home from a year deployment, I personally had my Fourth Amendment denied with a 2.5-hour-long stop-and-search for “looking suspicious” while driving to my new duty assignment. I couldn’t help but think how black Enduring Freedom troops share a common history of racism as every other Black American troop returning home from war in the history of this country. When I found out one of my troop’s mom stopped sending cookies while we deployed because she found out his boss was black and subordinates were Latino, it didn’t even surprise me (or disappoint me…she didn’t like brown people or brown sugar, and it showed in her baking). Even now I fear for myself, my friends, and my future husband when being sent to a diversity deprived town in the US on military duty more than by terrorists while deployed.

I vowed to support and defend the Constitution of America against those who want to betray it. I believe in the principals of the Constitution so much that I believe ALL Americans should experience the freedoms guaranteed by each article. I never vowed to deny my American experiences or the experiences of others. Desiring liberty for all Americans is only natural for someone who pledges to support and defend the constitution.

Denying institutional racism exists is like denying wind exists or denying your own mother exists. You see it and feel it every day so denying it is just a weird thing to do. To deny racism exists is to deny my life-long American experience. Neither are prerequisites to military service. Acknowledging the damaging effects racism has on American society does not preclude military service. Because I can recognize that everyone has a different American experience makes me better able to identify with those I lead. Officers who dismiss the prevalence of institutionalized racism have never listened to their experiences of their troops or peers. They haven’t asked. They aren’t curious. They don’t care. Pity the troop who follows a leader who refuses to acknowledge their different experiences.

Some people have the character that dictates that they must be treated a certain way before they are willing to help. It must be perplexing as to why someone would prepare to answer their nation’s call when that nation doesn’t reciprocate that call. However, stepping up, even without reciprocity is the very embodiment of selfless service. It’s asking what can I do for my nation rather than what has my government done for me. If that were the question Black Americans asked before serving, this nation would have fallen to the French and Indians in 1755 and the British in 1775.

However, if a person’s character demonstrates grace, has the heart to serve, the belief one can affect change and have an “ask what you can do for your country” mentality, then you serve in spite of the current conditions. Surely every American has something they don’t like about their country. They know America has space for improvement. However, no one says that if another believes so strongly in immigration issues, they shouldn’t be a service member. No one dare tells another American that if they feel so strongly reproductive rights, education reform, gay rights, recreational marijuana, then they shouldn’t serve or maybe they should leave America. Constant critique of America is where improvement begins.

What a peculiar thing to say. I find it perplexing that one would be astonished that someone who recognizes and opposes systematic racism still chooses to serve in uniform.

Chaplain George Prioleau, during the Spanish American War, noted, “T he men are anxious to go. The country will then hear and know of their bravery. The American Negro is always ready and willing to take up arms to fight and lay down his life in defense of his country’s honor.”

So why would black Americans, who experience institutional racism daily, be so willing to do such a thing as answer their nation’s call during a time of war, my comrade asks? The answer to the question is the same today, as it was during Chaplain Prioleau’s day-Because we are American! That’s what Americans do!

Service members are leaders, and getting involved and leading change is what they do. Individuals like Jimmy Lee Jackson, Sammy Younge Jr., Medgar Evers, and George Dorsey championed the ideals of freedom at home and abroad and gave the ultimate sacrifice for it. They experienced the same beliefs and struggles as the Black service members before them and after them. This isn’t obscure history. All it takes is an interest in the American experience. People lead and serve, not because life has been one giant crystal escalator, but because they believe in the ideals of America and have the hope that they can affect change from within and make life better. And then they do.

This Memorial Day, in addition to comrades who fell on foreign battlefields, I’ll be memorializing the freedom defenders, the heroes, and the leaders who survived Nazi Germany but became casualties of Jim Crow in their American hometowns. The battle for the blessings of liberty in America is the most enduring battle, and it is a privilege to continue the charge.

* Please note, I never said all Americans are subconsciously racist as accused in a FB spat. Someone was telling me what he thought I believed rather than listening to learn.

Posted in Tagged Destinations, American history, black history, history, Memorial Day, military history North America, United States

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !