When Senator Barack Obama was campaigning for President, much was made of the fact that he did not always wear an American flag pin on his lapel. This was obviously an attempt to question Obama’s patriotism. Frankly, my blood boiled every time the issue was raised. As the nation pauses for the Memorial Day Holiday to honor those who have served in the armed forces, it is important to proclaim that people of African descent have been America’s must devoted and patient patriots. African Americans have fought in virtually every war to preserve this nation’s “freedoms” even when those freedoms were not extended to Black people. Flag in hand or on lapel or not, no one dare question the patriotism of African Americans.
As the American nation was being forged from the dispossession of Native People and forced labor of enslaved Africans, the mission of Black people was clear: to achieve full freedom and create communities in which to live with dignity/respect, justice and peace. For some within the emerging new African community, fighting in America’s wars was viewed as one way of erasing the stigma of inferiority within a racist society and winning the respect of the European majority. Though others may have dissented from this view, Africans in America have always yearned and fought for emancipation and justice as the objective of the Black Freedom Struggle. Given the circumstances, the legacy of Blacks in the military is a saga of incredible sacrifice, commitment, heroism and patriotism.
As King George sought to crush the growing demand for independence by the American colonists, Crispus Attucks, who may have been of mixed African and Native American ancestry, was killed while leading a protest march against British occupation forces. Hence, he became the first to die in the struggle leading up to the birth of the American nation. As the American Revolution erupted, the British General Lord Dunmore offered freedom to any enslaved or quasi-free African willing to fight on the British side. Hundreds took him up on the offer. General George Washington was initially reluctant to put guns in the hands of Blacks with grievances, but faced with declining fortunes in the war, he recruited Black troops to bolster the fortunes of the Continental Army. By some estimates, 5,000 Africans eventually enlisted in all Black units, some of which fought with distinction in battles like Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill. At the conclusion of the war, however, there was little change in the status of Africans. Indeed, enslaved Africans were written into the Constitution as 3/5 of a human being for the purposes of determining taxation and representation in Congress by the southern states.
Though the Civil War was touted a conflict over the issue of slavery, President Lincoln did not immediately issue an executive order freeing the enslaved Africans when the hostilities between north and south exploded. Eager to achieve freedom, enslaved Africans abandoned plantations in droves whenever units of the Union Army were in proximity. So plentiful was the multitude of self-emancipated Africans that General Benjamin “Beast” Butler pleaded with Lincoln to recruit them as soldiers in the Union Army. Confronted with less than a stellar performance by the Union Army in an increasingly unpopular war, Lincoln reluctantly decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and gave the order to recruit Blacks as soldiers for the Union. Nearly 250,000 Africans flocked to the Union Army to formally strike blows for their freedom. Fighting gallantly in battles like the siege of Fort Wagner in South Carolina [which was depicted in the movie Glory], some 40,000 Blacks died in the Civil War. And, though slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment and Blacks were made citizens of the nation on paper, in reality state sanctioned apartheid and violence in the south and defacto segregation in the north made a mockery of the promise of full freedom.
Yet, Africans in America continued to believe that by fighting in America’s wars, the promise of full freedom would eventually be realized. When “Johnny” went marching off to make the world “safe for democracy” in World War I, nearly 400,000 Blacks also joined the effort to thwart the danger of Kaiser Wilhelm. Second class citizens eagerly joined the fight to preserve freedoms they could not fully enjoy themselves! Confined to segregated units and fighting under the command of General Foch of France (American General “Black Jack” Pershing despised Blacks and wanted nothing to do with them as soldiers), Black soldiers, most notably the 369th Infantry, also known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, fought with great valor in a number of battles. However, when the Black troops returned home from the war, the humiliation of discrimination and segregation were still facts of life. As if to remind them that they were still considered niggers in America, Black soldiers were gunned down in their uniforms in the “bloody red summer” of 1919.
More than one million Blacks heeded the call to repulse the threat to democracy posed by Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese expansionism during World War II. Though some were assigned to mixed race units, segregation in the military was still the norm. Not surprisingly, Black soldiers once again fought with distinction, including the legendary feats of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Under mounting pressure from Black leaders, by the end of the War the government was finally willing to consider officially desegregating the armed forces. In July of 1948, after generations of confining second-class citizens to segregated units in the fight for America’s freedom, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces of the United States. It had been a long, glorious and bitter sojourn since the death of Crispus Attucks.
Blacks would fight in the Korean conflict and the War in Viet Nam even as the heroic struggle for dignity, justice and equality continued to unfold. At every turn, Blacks in America, almost inexplicably, fought for America despite the fact that this nation consistently denied us our full measure of freedom. With the possible exception of Native Americans, no other group in this land has suffered a similar fate. As the struggle for full freedom continues, the legacy of Black soldiers in the U.S. Military is impeccable. With unprecedented sacrifice, commitment, blood and suffering, the sons and daughters of Africa in America have earned the right to wave or wear the American Flag, or not to, if we choose. But, let no one dare question our patriotism!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.