Letter from Military History – January 2012

Them and Us

The history of race relations in the American military is a long, complex tale—sometimes uplifting but frequently tragic. Full of sound and fury, it has signified much about our country and what we value. Its pattern often has been two steps forward, one step back.

Blacks have been part of America’s armed forces for as long as we have had military organizations. The first Colonial casualty of the Revolution was a black man named Crispus Attucks, at the 1770 Boston Massacre. Black militiamen fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill, and blacks have fought in every war since. But only within living memory have they fought for this country on an equal footing with others in uniform. Part of the explanation for that glacial pace of change stems from this: Blacks were enslaved on this continent for 240 years; it has been just 149 years since President Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves; and many more decades passed under Jim Crow laws and a social rigidity tantamount to slavery.

In that time the struggle for inclusiveness and equal treatment among and within our military services has been uneven. For years blacks served unremarkably on the crews of many an American warship, while the Marine Corps remained strictly whites-only. Later, the Navy dragged its feet even as the Air Force moved toward integrated service.

The long drive toward inclusiveness, illuminated by countless individual acts of personal, military and political courage, is inseparable from the struggle for equal rights in the larger society. But achieving fundamental fairness is arguably most important in the military, because serving in uniform is one act of citizenship that includes the potential of dying for the country.

It is obvious that racism—a negative generalization about other people that denies their individual identity and humanity—is a stubbornly entrenched attitude. One element of it certainly is fear of otherness. On the evidence it is terrifyingly easy to move from visible differences to suspicion to threat and, finally, to violence.

Americans are beneficiaries of some of the best political and social ideas ever conceived and practiced. As such, we are obligated by the very quality of those ideas to move toward their realization, “with liberty and justice for all.” We have come a long way, moving from obsessions with otherness to a sense of our commonalities as citizens—moving from them to us. And in our military we have seen what can be done.

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