Black Military Service
    from Post Civil War to Vietnam

    An African American History Month Report
    by Phill Coleman

    Shortly after the Civil War, at a time when many European Americans were committed to eradicating the social and material barriers separating white from black, inherent racism among some European Americans continued to rebuild them.

    Ignoring the fact that the first American killed at the start of the Revolutionary War was an African American, that the contribution of black Americans during the Civil War was exemplary, and that black Buffalo soldiers served with distinction in the Western conflicts against Native Americans, racists serving in uniform conspired to remove from their ranks the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

    Yesterday, President William Jefferson Clinton righted a 100 year old wrong. Lt. Henry O. Flipper, falsely and maliciously accused of violating military ethics -- although exonerated of a higher crime deemed by his military judges to be bogus and based solely on race -- received a Presidential pardon.

    Sadly, the terrible injustice inflicted upon an American soldier simply because of his race has continued to serve as a deterrent to many young African Americans toward military service... and continues to serve as a basis for low to negligible membership in post-military organizations by African American veterans.

    Although African Americans composed approximately fifteen percent of America's Vietnam War battle force, (four percent higher than the total African American population stateside), their membership in any Vietnam War veteran organization since the war's end has never exceeded more than one percent. During the Vietnam War no United States military installation anywhere on the globe came even close to equaling the number of African Americans serving in South Vietnam. Indeed, during the years 1968-1970 the number of (male) African Americans serving in South Vietnam exceeded the number of black servicemen stationed in all of North and Southern Europe, those attending graduate school, those receiving college degrees, or those serving in any of the U.S. Army's various military districts.

    Racism continues to remain the dominant force in determining military and veteran participation in many aspects of military and post-military associations. Since public access to the internet began in 1994, African American participation in internet newsgroups and chat rooms continues to remain almost non-existent due to their being singled out and harassed by individuals and groups determined to exercise "ethnic purity", under the guise of assigning black vets psuedonames for the "N" word.

    What keeps African American veterans away from internet discussion groups and veteran organizations is the same strategy employed by those who succeeded in ostracizing Lt. Henry Flipper. This racist strategy, exercised no differently than it has since the Emancipation, is to falsely accuse, libel and slander. Never mind that, as in Lt. Flipper's case, the accusations can never be proved. And nevermind that the victims are completely innocent. But, rather than become victims of this unchanging strategy of harassment, most black veterans choose to accede to the racist's desire to stay away.

    The Persian Gulf War exampled the greatest degree of racial harmony among white and minority servicemen and women in the history of America's armed forces. Some would say racial harmony displayed by whites during the Gulf War was necessary since many of the Gulf-area nations hosting and supporting the Allied effort contained historic, inherent African ancestry. Nonetheless, the Gulf War harmony proved to many that whites and blacks can, if they are permitted, fight together, serve together, work and play together.

    The remnant proponents of racial disharmony within the military and veteran communities comes mostly from pre-Gulf War members. U.S. military racism is hard-dying, but it is dying.

    Lt. Henry O. Flipper died before he could witness the first Silver Star (and first highest medal) awarded at the start of World War 2 to a black cook named Dorrie Miller. (Not a single African American was permitted to receive the Medal of Honor throughout WW2.) It would be seven years after Flipper's death that segregation in the United States military was abolished... for a second time.

    As children, African Americans are necessarily taught by their concerned and anguished parents to always anticipate attacks upon them because of their race. We expect to be singled-out and harassed by racist individuals for no other reason than the color of our skin. News reports as recent as today reveal that African American military and law enforcement personnel are still denied accommodations and services because of their race.

    With the pardon of Lt. Flipper President Clinton's 1992 promise of Hope, Healing and Restoration to bring fully equality and dignity to each and every American was gratefully acknowledged by African American veterans. It is our hope that within our lifetime, as was not in Lt. Flipper's, those of us who proudly wore our uniform and served our Nation in harm's way will also be restored of our dignity, and permitted to participate in veterans groups free from selective, racial assault.

    Moreso today than in recent memory there is an important reason for all American's to work together toward eliminating residual racism in our military and veteran communities. Those who regularly follow the news have noted the recent re-militarization of a growing number of nations around the world. Each day's news reports informs us of yet another country committing additional resources toward enhancing and expanding their military ranks and arsenals. As the world's only recognized peacemaking super power, the United States will inevitably be called upon -- just as we were in 1917 and 1939 -- to distribute/contribute our military muscle to prevent devastating destruction and massive loss of life. America will not be able to fulfill our upcoming missions if racially divisive forces from within are permitted to hamstring our peace-restoring efforts.

    This month is African American History Month but it is also White History Month. Although racism continues to distract America from realizing its full potential, it cannot go unrecognized by any African American that slow but significant changes have occurred only because courageous European Americans recognized the wrongs and took self-sacrificing steps to right them. As many African American ancestral bloodlines are almost as much white as they are black, those of us who find racism almost unbearable at times also find hope and encouragement when brave European Americans stand up to say, "Enough is enough!" The freedoms we African Americans enjoy today have not come so much from what we have done through our sit-ins, boycotts and peace marches, but from what soulful white Americans have done for us in their appeals for justice, their selection of democratic and equality guided leaders and, at times, placing not only their lives but the lives of their families in jeopardy. We are eternally indebted for those sacrifices.

    We all look toward a better day when the last flame of racism in America is finally extinguished.

    Phill Coleman
    Vietnam Veteran, 1969-70
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