Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Military's Continuing Battle with Racism

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Military's Continuing Battle with Racism

Article excerpt

The Military's Continuing Battle with Racism

Precious few books address or do justice to the role of African Americans in the evolution and development of the most powerful democracy in history, the United States of America. Even less attention has been paid by historians to the role and contributions of African American soldiers, sailors and airmen in providing for the security of that democracy.

Colonel Michael Lanning's book, The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell, will make a major contribution to filling that void. Indeed, his book will go a long ways toward correcting major distortions -- some of them by historians whose omissions were deliberate attempts to discredit or devalue the historical contributions of African American military men and women.

Lanning traces the participation of African American military men and women in every major conflict that Americans have fought in from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War. His historical accounting of the struggle of African Americans to gain equality and full citizenship on two fronts -- in the military and in civilian life -- is quite moving. He blends historical facts and statistics into a highly readable chronology. It becomes quite clear very early in the book that there exists a dichotomy between the promises of democracy and the reality of military life.

Throughout the book, one can detect several themes that have persisted for African Americans for the more than two hundred years that African Americans have fought in America's wars.

The first theme is one of acceptance and rejection. Acceptance on a limited scale during times of crisis and near-total rejection when the danger passes is a common feature of the African American experience. This pattern repeated itself during and after each conflict from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam.

Writes Lanning: "While the United States ultimately benefitted by the war, African-Americans did not. Once again Blacks had to fight for the right to fight. And once again, after they had fought and many had died, their country neither recognized nor rewarded their service."

Another theme is the myth that honorable military service will lead to decreased discrimination -- both in the military and in civilian life. Throughout the book, Lanning describes this as a predominant view among African Americans.

Describing the view of many African Americans during the Spanish-American War, Lanning writes, "Once the United States actually declared war against Spain, Blacks as a whole united in support of the war efforts. Individual Black men volunteered in the same spirit of patriotism, adventure, and opportunity to prove themselves that has motivated soldiers of all races and causes since the beginning of time."

And he continues, "In addition, they continued to believe, as had Black men in every prior American war, that honorable service would decrease discrimination and improve their qualify of life."

General "Black Jack" Pershing and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt both acknowledged the heroic contributions of African Americans during the Spanish-American War -- Roosevelt called the Black soldier, "an excellent breed of Yankee." However, for political reasons, the author suggests, Roosevelt's praise would become far less enthusiastic when he returned to political life.

"Prompted by a desire not to alienate White voters and [on] a crusade to make the Rough Riders the absolute heros of the war," Lanning writes, "Roosevelt began to downplay the performance of the Black regiments and ultimately to challenge their bravery and loyalty. …

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