Monday, February 11, 2013

"Double V" by Rawn James, Jr. (2013)

In this exciting new book by Rawn James, Jr., the author examines the history of the African-American fighting man.  Remember, these were guys who had to fight just to get into the fight! And then when they returned home, they were treated as second class citizens at best; and horrific resentment for their patriotism at the worst.

Author Rawn James, Jr. goes to extraordinary lengths in his recounting not only the exploits of these brave men, but also examines what they hoped to gain by fighting for freedom overseas, while the very freedoms for which they were fighting, were denied to them here at home.

Beginning with the American Revolution and the death of Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre, and on through the end of World War Two, when President Truman finally desegregated the Armed Forces, African Americans have contributed greatly to the building of a nation.

From the slaves who built the Capitol city in Washington, D.C., and even on the battlefield, African Americans were a large part of the American Revolution. Officially there were no real “black” troops during the War for Independence, but the hard work of re-supplying the troops, while still working the farms for the sustenance of all, was a very necessary contribution to the Victory at Yorktown in 1781.

General Washington was one of the first to exclude African Americans from the ranks of the Armed Forces. In 1775 the Continental Congress, in an overwhelming decision, voted to bar any blacks; free or slave; from taking up arms in defense of the colonies. The reasoning was simple; since Virginia was the most prosperous colony, with many large plantations supplying the needs of the Continental Army; it was imperative that the slaves remain slaves. The fear of well trained and armed black men was not one that appealed to our founding fathers, who were slave holders.  Any resistance from the northern colonies on the issue of slavery could have scuttled the Revolution before it ever got off the ground.

As a matter of fact, the preceding policy caused John Murray, Governor of Virginia, to proclaim that any African Americans who took up arms against their masters to fight for the Crown would be freed. This action caused the colonies to reverse their course on the ban for African Americans to fight for freedom, and many a Hessian soldier stated that there was hardly a regiment in which African Americans did not take the field, often in the place of their masters.

By the time the War of 1812 rolled around, the Governor of Louisiana would make a direct appeal to President Madison for freed persons of color to be allowed to take up arms in order to oppose the invasion by the British at New Orleans. The permission was granted and hundreds of African American soldiers fought, and died, valiantly under General Jackson at New Orleans. In addition, fully 15%; or more; of all American seamen at the time were black. There was a reason for this.

Just as Crispus Attucks had escaped slavery by becoming a seaman, many other escaped slaves chose this same path to self-emancipation. The reasoning was that if you were aboard a ship at sea, the chances of being caught were slim to none. And; unless you sailed out of a Southern port; you were essentially free wherever you went. It was a form of self-exile, which took many African American men away from slavery, but at the same time denied them a family with a real home ashore.

One of the thornier bumps on the road to integrating the Armed Forces was the dilemma faced by President Lincoln in the Civil War. He was forced to straddle a line between the slave holding northern states of Maryland, Delaware and even Washington, D.C. itself; while attempting to free the slaves held in the Southern states. The reasoning was simple; without the slave labor in the south, the Confederacy would be in short supply of everything imaginable.  The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the states under rebellion, giving the northern states an edge in manufacturing and labor to draw upon.

At the beginning of the war, blacks were allowed to work as laborers, blacksmiths, scouts and spies. But by the time the south had gotten as far as Antietam, Maryland Lincoln changed his mind. Within the next year there would be over 50,000 ex-slaves serving in the Union Army.

By the time the United States entered the First World War the nation was reeling under the Jim Crow laws of the south. Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but nothing could legislate the thinking of the people in the South. They remained opposed to African Americans in the military. My own grandfather, while training for service in that war, was witness to a near riot in Spartanburg, S.C. when a black officer entered the lobby of a “whites only” hotel to buy a newspaper. 

The situation was the same in the rest of the country as well, with black soldiers routinely beaten in Houston, Texas.  The soldiers finally had enough and marched out of Fort Logan and before dawn of the following morning, scores of white citizens, and black soldiers were dead.

When these same soldiers returned from combat overseas they expected to be finally accepted as full citizens, having just fought for their country, as well as the cause of freedom. But aside from a parade in Harlem, things quickly went back to normal with a vengeance. By 1925 the Ku Klux Klan would be marching openly down Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House, fully robed. Down south lynching’s were becoming the norm, with many of the African American veterans being openly targeted due to their service in the war.

When the Second World War broke out the country was still of the mindset that blacks were inferior to whites. Indeed, the Supreme Court still upheld “Separate but Equal” as the law of the land.  It made no sense then, and boggles the imagination now. From the very first day of the war, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, African-Americans distinguished themselves countless times in the face of the enemy; both in the Pacific, as well as in Europe.

When the Japanese began bombing and strafing Pearl Harbor, Steward’s Mate Doris Miller, aboard the West Virginia, saw what needed to be done, and without training, or orders, he did it. He manned an anti-aircraft gun and shot at the Japanese planes, even as his white shipmates lay dying around him. For those actions, he became the first black man to be awarded the Navy Cross. It was pinned upon Doris Miller by Admiral Nimitz in Pearl Harbor on May 27, 1942. He died while still serving his country on Thanksgiving Day 1943.

With the outbreak of the Second World War the military needed to rethink its policies concerning race, and on June 1, 1942 the United States Nave began to accept black recruits. They were trained at Camp Smalls, adjacent to Great Lakes in Illinois. This was the first major step in the desegregation of the entire Armed Forces.
No account of the desegregation of the military can be complete without an accounting of President Harry Truman and his Executive Order formally ending segregation in the services. Born in a border slave state to a viciously prejudiced family, the future President had served in the First World War and seen black troops in service to their country. Although he was not without racial prejudices of his own, he was nowhere near as short sighted about racial issues as many of his fellow countrymen.

On July 26, 1948 Harry Truman signed Executive Order Number 9981 which essentially stated that the Armed Forces of the United States needed to reflect the values we fight for; namely; equal opportunity. What made this so fantastic is that Harry Truman was in the midst of a re-election campaign which no one thought he would win.  Indeed there may have been a political component to Truman’s decision; he wanted the black vote. But there can be no denying that his Executive Order, and the resultant Fahy Committee, were the spears which broke the back of institutionalized racism in the Armed Forces.

The Fahy Committee accomplished the task of desegregation in the Navy and the Air Force in short order.  Both of those branches were ready, and willing, to accept the change. With the Marines and the Army it would be a different matter; a matter of time.

By the outbreak of the Korean War the Army was finally on board with the program and the Marines reluctantly followed in the next decade. Today the Armed Forces are fully integrated, with about 38% of the combined services made up of African-Americans. Has racial prejudice completely disappeared from the military? Not likely; but it’s no longer institutionalized, nor accepted. It took too long, but as they say, “You’ve come a long way baby!” Now it’s on to the newest challenge; women in combat. 

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