America’s History of Mistreatment of Black Service Members

“[Black] soldier of the US 12th Armored Division stands guard over a group of Nazi prisoners captured in the surrounding German forest”. Source: US NARA 535840

A new article on the history of American racism towards its black veterans points out it goes back to the Civil War:

Thousands of Black men who served in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II were targeted because of their service and threatened, assaulted or lynched, according to a 2017 Equal Justice Initiative report.

It’s a good article to read in order to have better context around the attempted lynching by Virgina police, which has been in the news a lot lately.

I would just add that this article leaves some pretty big gaps in history that shouldn’t be hard to close. For example:

  • Black veterans of Spanish-American war were decorated at particularly important time period. This really frames Woodrow Wilson’s racism that motivated his run for President (In 1881 Wilson said the South’s suppression of black voters was not because of skin but because their minds were dark. In 1902 Wilson said the South was the victim of Civil War). He in effect restarted the KKK from the White House, which is why lynchings and massacres targeting the veterans of WWI after his Presidency were so high.

    These American heroes ran directly into American racism. Instead of celebration and expansion, the backlash of resentment from white insecurity grew against these blacks who ventured to demonstrate their value and capabilities — success in America meant risk of being punished and relegated to lesser roles. ‘Shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War a decline began in the status of Black serviceman.’

  • Black women faced even more discrimination than men, and often were denied entry into service despite being overqualified.

    Bessie Coleman was the first American to have an International Pilot’s license. Racism in America actively prevented a black and Native American woman to learn how to fly, so she took night school to learn French, went to France and quickly became a pilot there. “…her brothers served in the military during World War I and came home with stories from their time in France. Her brother John teased her because French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes and Bessie could not…”

  • There are so many individual examples of black servicemen being silently killed by white police in America, like the 1960 murder of Marvin Williams, that it becomes almost impossible for people who aren’t aware of the magnitude of it all to understand where and how to look at systemic racism in America. In other words, ask who has been allocated the dedicated time and resources to drive justice in every individual case like Marvin Williams let alone in a “storm” (what white insecurity forces call themselves) perpetrating widespread domestic massacres of black American military veterans.

    The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top… ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’

  • Slaves were forced to fight for US independence from Britain at a time when Britain was ending slavery. Men like the alleged mass rapist who hunted humans for sport, known as “Swamp Fox” by the British, in fact kept records boasting of putting their slave into action to do the actual fighting on their behalf. Just to be clear, Americans perpetuated slavery by using slaves to fight for independence from “tyranny”. It’s worth debating whether America losing its war for independence might have made life in America safer for black veterans and emancipated them by the 1830s.

    In December 2006, two centuries after his death, Marion made news again when President George W. Bush signed a proclamation honoring the man described in most biographies as the “faithful servant, Oscar,” Marion’s personal slave. Bush expressed the thanks of a “grateful nation” for Oscar Marion’s “service…in the Armed Forces of the United States.”

  • To the last point above, in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans freemen (black soldiers) played a decisive role. 50% of Jackson’s force from Louisiana was non-white despite “free blacks” being just 10% of the population. Although these black men served with distinction and achieved victory, Jackson quickly double-crossed them and stole their valor, rights and even took their guns away.

    …while Spanish/French colonial-era slave codes had granted complete rights and equality to a “free man of color” (allowed to be educated, serve in military, own land, business, and even slaves) it was only the March 4, 1812 Louisiana Constitution that removed the right to vote from 2/3 of the people living there. That was long before Jackson would fight a vicious political campaign at the federal level to do them even more harm.

Hope that helps add even more detail to this ongoing tragedy of American history — how it treats its own military when they are black.

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