We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.

(W.E.B. Dubois)

Veteran’s Day, November 11, is a federal holiday in the United States which honors all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. African Americans have fought in all of the nation’s wars from the American Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are African American veterans remembered and honored in the same way as other veterans? Do all veterans matter?

One of the criticisms of those who took or take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem is that it dishonors American veterans. But has America always honored all of its veterans, its black veterans in particular? Historically, despite their service, the reverence and cult of worship for veterans is withheld from African American veterans. According to Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder and director, “America celebrates and honors folks who risk their lives on the battlefield but black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.” Racist mythology affected the way in which African Americans who joined the military were perceived and treated. Blacks were believed to be cowards and therefore unfit to make good soldiers.

Why did African Americans join the military? Fight for a country that did not respect or protect them as citizens? African Americans served their nation in order to claim full citizenship. Serving in the military provided an opportunity to demonstrate patriotism and then to be treated as equal citizens. They expected better and equal treatment in return for their service. The veteran’s expectation of equal status as citizens was to crucial test of America’s ideal of freedom and justice for “all”.

World War I

More than 350,000 African Americans joined the military during WWI. Over 200,000 served in France, primarily in service units. The French were pressured by U.S. military officials not to treat black soldiers as equals and the mythology of black inferiority was responsible for the “loaning” of the 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” to the French Army. This mythology also prevented Sgt. William Butler from being awarded the Medal of Honor which serves as testament valor for which he was nominated. Sgt. Butler’s Medal of Honor nomination was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. Sgt. Butler had single-handedly taken on a German raiding party returning from attacking and capturing prisoners.

World War II

As in WWI, African Americans serving in the armed forces experienced and suffered pervasive racial discrimination in a segregated military. Even though relegated to second-class status in the military, African Americans fought valiantly and as a result shattered the myth of black inferiority. The final insult came at the end of their service. The highly promoted GI Bill was designed to give veterans a lift in terms of homeownership, education and business ventures in gratitude for their service to the nation. The GI Bill was constructed in such a way however, that most of the benefits including mortgage support, college tuition, and business loans could be denied black veterans. This deliberately ill treatment of black veterans increased the gaps in terms of wealth and education between black and white Americans.

The Korean War

Despite the July 26, 1948 Executive Order 9981, signed by President Harry Truman desegregating the armed forces, the order was ignored by many senior American military commanders and artillery units remained all-black and 90 percent of all black units were commanded by white officers.

Life was very difficult for African American soldiers during their time of service during the Korean War. They encountered racism, discrimination and violence. The mythology of black inferior was still potent during the war, even General MacArthur believed that African American soldiers were inferior to whites. In 1950, fifty members of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment were arrested and falsely accused of AWOL (Absence Without Leave) and cowardice in the presence of the enemy.

The Vietnam War

Although the military was fully integrated by the Vietnam War, African Americans still faced racist treatment. Most troubling was the racism and discrimination experienced while in basic training in Southern towns. African Americans were disproportionately represented in the Vietnam War; while making up only 11% of the U.S. population, in 1967, 16.35 of those drafted were African American and 23% were combat troops. African Americans were disproportionately sent to the frontline, jailed or disciplined at a higher rate than others and promoted less often.

African American veterans - Target of racial violence

Violence against African American veterans soared after WWI and WWII. African American veterans were targeted during the Red Summer of 1919. At least 13 veterans were lynched across the United States after the War, “many in uniform”.

Why were African American veterans targeted? African American veterans posed a threat to the racial subordination required of blacks during the Jim Crow era. The uniform itself was perceived to be a threat to the racial caste system. In addition, African American veterans returned with a new mindset, a new confidence and assertiveness. Their service to the nation encouraged a sense of entitlement to equal rights and the determination to fight for their rightful place in American society. After fighting to make the world “safe for democracy”, African American veterans were not inclined to accept 2nd class citizenship in the land of their birth. African American veterans returning from WWII adopted the “Double V” campaign emphasizing both victory against fascism abroad and victory against white supremacy at home.

African American veterans have been targeted and murdered for everything from fighting for the right to vote, using a “whites only” bathroom, to pursuing higher education at a white institution. According to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative published in 2016 entitled Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans, “Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused or lynched following military service. No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terrorism than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil, World War I and World War II. A notable African American WWII veteran was Medgar Evers, Mississippi State Field Secretary for the NAACP, who was assassinated in 1963 by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith.

Historical facts reveal that black veterans have not always mattered. and that being a veteran or wearing the uniform could and did endanger one’s life. Do African American veterans in 2020 receive the same respect as other veterans? Are they included in the perception of those to be honored? Most critically, when we consider that the lives of those who defended and gave their lives for America did not matter, can we honestly say that black lives matter?