today in black history

July 15, 2024

True Reformers Hall, the first building designed, financed and built by Blacks after Reconstruction is dedicated in 1903 in DC.

Blacks, the original defenders of democracy

POSTED: March 22, 2022, 2:00 pm

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Scenes of Ukraine’s citizens taking up arms in the defense of their country have prompted praise for their patriotism and loyalty. As common citizens take up the cause for independence, the world has seemingly forgotten when Blacks did the same during the Civil War. And unlike Ukrainians who fight with the imprimatur of citizenship, Blacks did so as outcasts, as pariahs in a land that did not recognize their humanity, but for which they fought to defend. It is the ultimate example of heroism and patriotism in a nation that refuses to acknowledge the central role that Black people have paid in protecting, defending and building the United States. It is the answer to the ‘why’ critical race theory must be incorporated into every consideration of justice and equity in this nation.

As I watch scenes of Ukrainians taking up arms to defend their homeland my thoughts are of my ancestors and the hell they endured during slavery and the Civil War. Black people had no standing, they were expendable labor, not even ‘second-class’ citizens, and regarded as less than human. Despite this, as white supremacy became the weapon pointed at the Union, it was Blacks, with no recognized rights as citizens, who took up arms to defend the ‘idea’ of democracy espoused in the nation’s founding documents but not upheld in practice. On the other hand, Ukrainians are angry over what is being taken from them. While Ukrainian resistance is embedded in their relational experience with freedom and democratic rule, Blacks had no such history upon which to base their defense of this nation. It was an outsized act of courage for Blacks to take up arms during the Civil War and defend a country that, to that point, had been adamant in its denial of Blacks’ humanity. Black people could not point to the past, or their contemporary experience, to rationalize their decision to fight the Confederacy. They were pariahs in the south, and a nuisance to the north, and could not point to any evidence that their liberation would be won through battle. What Ukrainians are fighting for today, Blacks in 1861 could never have imagined.

I raise this point because the American media’s infatuation with Ukrainian’s patriotism and loyalty shows the depth of the nation’s denial of its own history. As the narrative of Ukrainian bravery takes root, the truth of the courage and bravery of Black people in the United States is being buried in communities across the country. A wholesale assault on the truth is underway with the movement to ban books, with works by Black authors targeted, and attacks on critical race theory as a stealth campaign to eliminate the teaching of Black history. While Americans applaud the bravery of Ukrainians, we conveniently ignore the heroism of Black people as the first defenders of democracy. There existed no hashtags, Instagram and Facebook posts that captured the pain and suffering of Black people terrorized in their own country and the heroism Black people displayed in joining a war effort to defend a land in which they had no rights. Black people, from Crispus Attucks onward, have been America’s most loyal patriots and in return have gained little recompense.

It always strikes me when Americans, white Americans and white institutions, can make value judgements about humanity afar and fail to recognize their hypocrisy. No one can deny the heroism of Ukraine’s citizenry in taking to the streets to fight Russian troops or feel empathy for families and children as they endure the horrors of war. Yet, the United States cannot acknowledge the terror Blacks endured during slavery and the selflessness of Black people taking up arms to defend a flag with protective glory that never covered Black life. There was little to no opposition to extending aid to the people of Ukraine, as there should not be given the humanity crisis we are witnessing. However, where is the equivalent support for the people of Haiti, the Caribbean or sub-Sharan African nations that have been devastated by war, corruption and natural disasters due to climate change? It is the hypocrisy of our benevolence to Ukraine that exposes the depths of racism in America.

I hope Ukrainians defend their land and repel Putin’s forces, and I hope the international community continues to come to the aid of the Ukraine people. I also hope the international community recognizes the history of Black oppression in the United States, and colonialism’s role in the exploitation of Africa, and demands with equal fervor the liberation of Black people in America and the Diaspora. There may come a time when a war is fought on American soil, and this nation needs to consider if Blacks will exhibit the same loyalty and patriotism as we have in the past when the fighting starts. So, applaud Ukrainians America, but understand their anger and fighting is rooted in what was done to them, and then think about what was done to Blacks in this nation.

Walter L. Fields is the Executive Editor of

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