Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on June 24, 2021)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Sara Bishop
Information for Artwork listed below
Next weekend marks the 245th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For many, the annual ritual of fireworks, flag-waving parades, and family barbeques offers the chance to renew our shared national identity through uncomplicated, simple expressions of patriotism. For others, the fourth of July holiday conjures mixed emotions about the long struggle to make the words of that historical document a reality, even for soldiers who lay their lives on the line to sustain American democracy.
The holiday throughout the nation's history has undoubtedly churned up conflicting feelings among Americans who fought for the freedoms they ultimately would never fully experience.
Approximately 8,000 Black soldiers fought and served in the Revolutionary war. The promise of freedom drew them to the battlefront, where they risked injury and death for the liberty to earn wages, purchase property and raise a family free from terror. Those liberties never came. More than 100 years later, another generation of Black soldiers followed the same promises of a society where “every man was created equal,” including my 3rd great grandfather, General William Henry Harrison.
General Harrison was born a slave and fought in the Civil War from 1862 to 1865. As a member of the 1st North Carolina Colored Troops (Company A), General Harrison was able to fight because an Act of Congress declared forever free the soldier who enlisted. The act extended freedom to the soldier’s mother, wife, and children. Like the Black soldiers of the Revolutionary War, my 3rd great grandfather fought to overturn the system that had enslaved him and his ancestors and attain freedom for future generations.
He was one of the thousands of Black soldiers who were liberated from slavery after the war. But the long wait continued as the society he returned to was far from equal. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it as:
Freeing a man who had been unjustly imprisoned for years, and on discovering his innocence sending him out with…no financial compensation to atone for the long years of incarceration and to help him get a sound footing in society.
In 1919, another generation of Black soldiers risked their lives to uphold the fundamental principles symbolized by the American flag during World War 1. And yet, their homecoming was marked by a period of racialized terror and violent mobs targeting Black veterans, the deadliest of which was the 1921 Tulsa Massacre close to our region. More than 300 Black people were murdered during the week-long massacre, 1,400 homes were burned or looted, 6,000 Black people were detained in internment camps, and years of Black success were erased overnight. Other massacres included the 1919 Elaine Massacre in Arkansas, the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Rosewood, Florida, the 1929 Greensboro Massacre, and the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago. Not one person was ever convicted after these horrific events.
Black men continued to serve this country and the American flag with pride and honor. During World War II, my godfather, the late Howard Butler, “Papa Howard,” served in the U.S. Army from 1942-1946 in France and Germany. A promise of affordable education and homeownership through the passing of the GI Bill greeted most soldiers when they returned home, not Papa Howard. Unfortunately, he and thousands of other Black veterans were denied the GI’s benefits because the federal government gave the power to the states to apply it.
Today, economists broadly agree that homeownership is one of the driving forces of the racial wealth gap. While the G.I. Bill on its face is race-neutral, state legislatures, including Arkansas, intentionally discriminated against Blacks by implementing the benefits, which were disproportionately extended to White veterans.
In the hierarchy of patriotism, respect for soldier sacrifice is the minimum attachment we expect Americans to have towards their country. Yet throughout American history, race has been a more salient identity than the democratic ideals we have lived and died for.
Acknowledging this fact and exploring the lived experiences of Black and brown communities doesn’t make us less patriotic; it reflects a deep investment in both the promise and practice of democracy reflected in the writings of our founding fathers and other visionary figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Winona LaDuke, Fred Korematsu, and Gloria Anzaldúa. In the words of Maya Angelou, “history despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
The experiment of American democracy is not a finished product. It wasn’t with the founding fathers, it wasn’t after the American Revolution, it wasn’t after the civil war or both world wars, and it is not today. This experiment in democracy is a shared project that needs to be reinterpreted and applied at different times and in different circumstances. How we do that successfully is largely based on how we have succeeded and failed in the past. I trust that all Americans who love democracy and love this country will someday bear witness to the aligning of American promises with American practices. We can do this together.
Information about the Artwork in the Top Graphic
Artwork of American Revolution Vet
The image above is a detail from Don Troiani’s painting, Soldier of the Sixth Connecticut Regiment (2019). https://www.6thconnecticut.org/
Artwork of Civil War Vet
Solomon Frister served in the U.S. Colored Troops. After the Civil War, he eventually made his way to Tennessee. His portrait was created by artist Shayne Davidson and is a part of the exhibit "Seventeen Men: Portraits of Black Civil War Soldiers." https://battleofnashville.com/seventeen-men/
Artwork of World War II Vet
The 761st Tank Battalion was activated on April 1, 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and deployed to Europe, landing at Omaha Beach in France on October 10, 1944. Art composition of Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers contributed by Jody Harmon: jodyharmon.com
Ayres, E. (2021). African Americans and the American Revolution. Jamestown & American Revolution Settlement Museum at Yorktown. https://www.historyisfun.org/learn/learning-center/colonial-america-american-revolution-learning-resources/american-revolution-essays-timelines-images/african-americans-and-the-american-revolution/
History. (2021). How the GI Bill's promise was denied to a million Black WWII Veterans. https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits
King Jr., M.L. (1968). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? New York, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
Parshina-Kottas, Y., Singhvi, A., Burch, A.D.S., Griggs, T., Grondahl, M., Huang, L., Wallace, T., White, J., and Williams, J.(2021, May 24). What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html
PBS. (2021). The Revolutionary War. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2narr4.html