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Honors deferred


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"Hope deferred makes the heart sick," evangelical pastor A.R. Bernard said, explaining the anger and frustration exhibited within the black community across America. Bernard points to unresolved problems: intractable hostility between the black community and police, and unfulfilled needs such as black urban poverty, high crime, and dismal education.

I can't argue with a single point he makes.

If you want to understand the depth of the frustration of black America or its historical post-Civil War roots, learn the American history you weren't taught. I'd start with David Barton's DVD of America in Black and White and his American Heritage Series. Barton holds the largest private collection of American historical source documents and operates WallBuilders, which fills many of the gaps in our historical knowledge. America in Black and White teaches the many contributions black Americans made before, during, and since the founding of our republic, especially post-Civil War.

In the 1950s, my vision of the American West was formed by TV and Hollywood: Blacks seldom existed other than as servants. Hollywood indoctrinated generations of Americans via films portraying blacks in servile positions for 60 years. An exception was the Western Sergeant Rutledge, which portrayed the persecution of a heroic black cavalry sergeant in the Indian Wars. Not until I entered military service did I first encounter black Americans in any type of personal relationship.

In Vietnam, all the artificial barriers between races came down under fire, as your life depended upon the guy next to you. In my decades of service I served with, for, and commanded black men and women who invariably were among the most memorable and inspirational people I've ever known. They were teachers and mentors, but mostly they were close companions. Whatever biases I was taught evaporated as I came to realize the grave injustices inflicted upon my friends. When a fellow officer married at our post chapel, we were shocked to hear him say he couldn't take his wife home as she would be raped and he lynched: He was black and she was white. This was in 1987.

Black Americans have made extraordinary contributions to America, from the first to fall in the American Revolution to unrecognized valor in the Civil War and taming the American West. The Massachusetts 54th Infantry was the first black regiment formed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Lincoln needed a battlefield victory to hold Northern Democrats at bay to keep the House of Representatives under Republican control. The Northern Democrats wanted to grant the Confederacy an armistice and allow them to secede. Antietam Creek provided the Union victory Lincoln needed to give him the political cover he required to announce the Emancipation Proclamation and end slavery. The 54th, led by 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw, (the son of a prominent abolitionist family) led the heroic charge to storm Fort Wagner in South Carolina. This was shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, which overshadowed the heroism of the 54th, but their valor led to more than 180,000 black soldiers fighting for the Union in the Civil War.

Post war, about a third of freed slaves headed West, comprising an equal number of cowboys and soldiers. Black "Buffalo Soldiers," a moniker given them by Western Indian tribes, fought in the 9th and 10th Cavalry in the Southwest and Northern tier states. They served as the first rangers in our national parks, especially Yellowstone. They fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders as they stormed San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War. Democrat President Woodrow Wilson later re-segregated the military and civil service, expelling thousands from civil service careers.

The rise of Southern Democrats after the end of Reconstruction led to Jim Crow laws throughout the South, the rise and suppression of the Ku Klux Klan as history textbooks were re-written and black America disappeared. Blacks were denied New Deal benefits, and when Jesse Owens humiliated Hitler's Nazis at the 1936 Olympics, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to congratulate him as he did other olympians. During WWII, black American Dorie Miller, assigned to the battleship West Virginia, rescued his ship's captain under heavy enemy fire at Pearl Harbor and manned a machine gun against attacking Japanese aircraft at great risk to his life. In 1942 Miller was awarded the Navy Cross (the second highest award for valor), but he was killed in action a year later. His heroism was portrayed in the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor, however most black servicemen in WWII were denied awards for valor and treated abysmally in a segregated military.

Other references you should read are Rising Tide by John Barry, which details the maltreatment of Southern blacks during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It led to mass migration of black Americans to Northern cities. Works by Nicholas Lemann—whose 1986 two-part articles in The Atlantic Monthly, "The Origins of the Underclass," and his recent book, The Promised Land—go far to explain the plight of urban blacks today.

Black Americans have come far, but we still have far to go. I don't buy into "white guilt" or "white privilege" as these deny black Americans equality. I do believe we owe black Americans a great debt, as yet unpaid. Δ

Al Fonzi had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Respond with a letter to the editor emailed to letters@newtimesslo.com.


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