We Return Fighting: How Memorial Day Can Mean Something Different for African American Soldiers

Jemar Tisby

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance. By setting aside a time to recall soldiers who died fighting for this nation, American citizens rightly honor their sacrifice and that of their family and friends. What often gets overlooked in the observance of Memorial Day, though, is the different experience of African American soldiers.

In one of the most remarkable articles for his newspaper, The Crisis, W.E.B. DuBois wrote “Returning Soldiers.” In it he acknowledged the dual battle that African American soldiers faced—a war abroad and a war at home.

We Return Fighting

DuBois begins his article saying,

“But today we return! We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.”

DuBois goes on to say that in spite of the risks they undertook to defend the country from her foreign enemies, African Americans would continue to fight against racism and segregation in their own nation.

“But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”

Unequal Treatment

Even though African Americans fought in every major war in American history, they were not always welcome in the ranks of the military. For much of U.S. history, white leaders cordoned-off people of color from white soldiers. They formed all-black regiments, often under the command of white officers, and excluded these soldiers from many of the mainstream responsibilities and opportunities that white soldiers had.

In fact, segregation-minded officers frequently excluded blacks from combat. They relegated black soldiers to support roles like cooks, orderlies and janitors. One anonymous solider wrote, “They got us here washing ditches [sic], working around officers houses and waiting on them, instead of trying to win this war they got us in ditches.”

Yet some regiments did fight, and they did so valiantly. The 8th Infantry Regiment (later the 370th regiment), which fought in both World Wars, was one of the only units populated and commanded entirely by black soldiers. The all-black Harlem Hellfighters served with distinction in World War I and earned the Croix de Guerre from the French army. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black group of military aviators, proved so successful that they helped pave the way for President Harry Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the military in 1948.

The Ultimate Price

But for African American soldiers the most vicious battle wasn’t in the European or Pacific theater, it was in their own country. Veterans of World War I and World War II came back from battling international powers to battle racism at home. Sometimes they paid the ultimate price.

Medgar Evers served in a segregated battalion in the U.S. Army and saw combat in both France and Germany. When he returned to his home state of Mississippi, he eventually became the first field secretary of the NAACP there. In 1963, a man hiding in the bushes across from his house shot him in the back and killed him while his wife and children waited for him inside. In his arms was a stack of t-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Medgar Evers’s only crime was believing that African Americans, many of whom had fought for freedom in the war, should enjoy their full rights as American citizens. He is buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

John Perkins, the living civil rights legend, had an older brother named Clyde. Clyde served in the military during World War II. Drafted as a punishment for challenging a white man’s authority in the Deep South, Clyde earned a Purple Heart in Germany and an honorable discharge. When he came home, a fun night at the movies turned deadly. A dubious altercation with a police officer left Clyde with two bullets in his stomach. He later died at the hospital in Jackson, an hour and half away.

Reflecting on the traumatic incident, Perkins reflected, “Dead! My brother dead. All that army stuff about making the world safe for democracy. All that fighting some place off in Europe didn’t get him killed. He had come home safe from the white man’s war only to be shot down six months later by a white man in his own hometown.”

Remember Those Who Returned Fighting

Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, effectively summarizes the case for remembering African American soldiers who were killed in the pursuit of civil rights.

“The disproportionate abuse and assaults against black veterans have never been fully acknowledged…No community is more deserving of recognition and acknowledgment than those black men and women veterans who bravely risked their lives to defend this country’s freedom only to have their own freedom denied and threatened because of racial bigotry.”

Even though these brave soldiers risked their lives abroad and lost their lives at home, Americans seldom acknowledge their sacrifice. On this Memorial Day, a moment of remembrance, let us remember those who “returned fighting.”

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  13. george canady

    May God help us, the christian white “middle class” as we begin to suffer the same injustice that we inflicted and participated in. Perhaps God will have more mercy and empathy toward the white church than we have had toward our black brothers and sisters. Let us hope that God would not make us “wear the shoes” of a black man to understand what white privilege is all about. May God, black men and women forgive us for allowing these things to take place in our families, churches, work, towns and country. May God give strength and platform to white men of God to speck truth to those theologians who call these issues “non-issues”. May God raise up a generation of reconciled men and women who are willing to spend as much energy in bringing our black brothers and sister to the reformed faith as our white fathers spent keeping them away. Praying for us now.

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