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NOTE
: THE DEFINING GENERATION is a project begun by Doug and Pam Sterner in 2002 and completed in 2006. Initially is was prepared for publication as a book, however with their changing focus to development of a database of military awards, was postponed indefinitely so they could concentrate on that larger, more important work. The stories found herein however, need to be shared, and they have consented to make this compilation available in this format. While each story can stand alone, it is recommended that for continuity, readers will be best served by reading the chapters sequentially from first to last.

 

The Defining Generation

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Defining Equality

Dr. Martin Luther King

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

Dr. Martin Luther King
August 28, 1963

 

The term "Civil Rights" conjures images of slavery, the American Civil War, segregated communities in our Southern States, along with marches and demonstrations in the 1960s to force American society to live up to the words echoed in the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Of a truth however, the issue of equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, has existed since the birth of our country. While the Civil War settled once and for all the issue of slavery in the United States, it failed to achieve the American credo echoed in the document that founded our nation.

Black Americans have served in the United States military since long before there was a United States of America. During the early days of settlement, British colonists welcomed both slaves and free blacks into provincial militias to defend small settlements from attack by native Indian tribes as well as European powers. As the population of Black soldiers grew however, White Americans in the colonies began to fear the potential for slave rebellions, and started excluding Blacks from military service. In 1639 Virginia passed a law prohibiting any Black American from serving in the military. The New England colony of Massachusetts followed with a similar law in 1656, and Connecticut passed a similar law in 1661.

Despite such laws, when enemies threatened the American colonies, Black Americans were quick to serve and were welcomed as needed soldiers. Black militiamen fought and died during King William's War (1689 – 1697), Queen Anne's War (1702 – 1713), and the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763). When the shot that was heard round the world was fired at Lexington on April 19, 1775, one of the eight American casualties was Prince Estabrook, a Black militiaman.

During the American Revolution no fewer than 5,000 African Americans served in General George Washington's Continental Army and thousands more served in local militias. Despite the fact that these volunteers were badly needed for the war effort, even as early as 1776 there was a prevailing attitude that the Black soldier was inferior to the White. Unlike later wars, during the American Revolution free Blacks and slaves were integrated into white units, but most were relegated to support roles as substitute soldiers for white colonists. Most served as guides, general laborers, messengers, and teamsters.  Black slaves who distinguished themselves in battle were promised freedom for their valor, but in the support roles where most Blacks served, it was difficult for then to demonstrate the battle prowess that could earn them freedom.

When the war ended and the demand for volunteer soldiers diminished, the United States quickly forgot the dedicated service of the Black soldier and returned to segregation in the South and a basically all-White Army throughout America. When Congress passed the Militia Act in 1792, the implicit intent was to limit the American militia to "able-bodied white male citizen(s) between the ages of 18 and 45." Such prejudice became even more blatant in the 1798 act to formally organize the United States Marine Corps. That legislation excluded "Negroes, mulattos (of African and European descent), and Indians" from service.

The fledgling new United States Navy became the one area where Black Americans could find some semblance of equal opportunity. When the War of 1812 began, fully ten percent of the United States Naval force was Black. With the beginning of that war, the Army once again accepted Blacks into military service (though the Marine Corps remained totally White until World War II). These Black soldiers and sailors served honorably throughout that brief war. General Andrew Jackson, whose force at New Orleans during the famous battle of 1814 included two Black battalions, noted: "I expected much from you…but you surpass my hopes…the American nation shall applaud your valor, as your General now praises your ardor."

When peace at last returned to the United States in 1814, the Black soldier found his services no longer needed or wanted. In 1820 the United States Army ordered that no blacks be accepted as recruits. In 1839 the Navy limited its own ranks to a maximum of five percent of black sailors. The moratorium on military service for Blacks continued virtually unabated until 1863 when, at the height of the Civil War, they were out of necessity finally allowed once again to serve as a result of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Even while those in the North railed against the slavery of the South however, the racial prejudice of the American Yankee was quite evident in the practice of segregation of Whites and Blacks. It took nearly two years of bitter warfare and the possibility of a Union loss of the war to convince the Northerners to reluctantly admit Black Americans into military service. Frederick Douglas pushed the cause to force the Union Army to finally admit Black recruits arguing sarcastically that: "Colored men were good enough to fight under Washington, but they are not good enough to fight under McClellan."

When at last President Lincoln opened the military service to Black volunteers on New Years Day, 1863, these soldiers were placed in segregated, all-black units. Almost universally they were under the command of White officers. In the Union Army of the Civil War, Black soldiers were encouraged to fight for their own freedom, and then denied equal opportunity in service. Not only was there a prejudice against Black soldiers in positions of leadership and authority, the inequality was more vividly apparent in the soldier's pay. White Union soldiers were paid thirteen dollars a month, their Black counterparts only seven dollars a month. Such was the subtle hypocrisy that continued in the American military until AFTER the end of World War II.

During the Civil War Black soldiers served with a distinction in battle that, though not unique in comparison to prior conflicts, was at last recognized. Twenty-five Black Americans received Medals of Honor for their battlefield valor, and in 1865 Martin R. Delany became our Nation's first Black field officer when he was commissioned as a major in the Union Army.

Among the heroes who earned Medals of Honor in the Civil War was a free Negro who enlisted from Baltimore "to save the country from ruin". After serving through engagements at Yorktown, Pennsylvania, and Fort Fisher, Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood noted in his diary: "This year has brought bout many changes that at the beginning were or would have been thought impossible. The close of the year finds me a soldier for the cause of my race."

Sergeant Major Fleetwood demonstrated that the Black soldier was an equal to his White counterpart, earning the Medal of Honor while carrying the flag of the United States through the horrible fight at Chapin's Farm, Virginia, in the fall of 1864. Despite this recognition, and the great strides towards acceptance of the Black soldier earned during the Civil War, Fleetwood was realistic. Following the war he authored a pamphlet titled The Negro as Soldier in which he wrote:

"After each war, of 1776, of 1812, of 1861, history repeats itself in the absolute effacement of remembrance of the gallant deeds done for the country by its brave black defenders and in their relegation to outer darkness. History further repeats itself in the fact that in every war so far known to this country, the first blood, and, in some cases, the last also, has been shed by the faithful Negro, and this in spite of all the years of bondage and oppression, and wrongs unspeakable."

The valor demonstrated by Black soldiers of both sides in the Civil War led to the formation of all-Black cavalry units to defend settlers in the American West. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, these Americans established a tradition of valor and service. Of the 426 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers for action during the Indian Campaigns of the American West, eighteen were presented to Black soldiers.

Until 1948 however, in the United States Army, Black soldiers were segregated in all-Black units…certainly no indication of changing prejudices. The United States Navy, once the bastion of acceptance for Black volunteers, demonstrated similar prejudices even more vividly following the Civil War. While Blacks continued to be recruited for the Navy, most were relegated to menial tasks as cooks and stewards. There was no issue of segregation in the Marine Corps – it remained lily white.

An indirect result of military service was the opportunity for Black soldiers to demonstrate their equality to their white fellow soldiers. Though the Army remained segregated, all-Black units such as the 10th and 12th Cavalry fought alongside White regiments. In battles such as the famous Spanish-American War charge at San Juan Hill, these Buffalo Soldiers did their duty so well that the white soldiers fighting next to them could not deny their valor. Though only one Black soldier earned a Medal of Honor in that historic battle, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt later spoke of the Buffalo Soldiers' valor and devotion to duty when he said: "I don't think that any Rough Rider will ever forget the tie that binds us to the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry."

When given opportunity on the battlefield, Black Americans were proving that all men regardless of race are created equal. Those who witnessed their service and sacrifice could not help but change long-ingrained misperceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices against men of color. During the Spanish American War, six Black servicemen received Medals of Honor, four of them for risking their lives to save a trapped element of White soldiers at Tayacoba Bay in Cuba.

The opportunity for Black soldiers to demonstrate their valor and thereby change the prejudices around them continued to be rather limited however. Prejudice within American society, as well as in the military, continued in its age-old traditions. When World War I began more than 2 Million Negroes registered for the draft, presenting some serious questions to a still segregated American society:

·         Where would such a large force of Black volunteers be trained? Certainly they would need a separate (from the white draftees) facility, as the two races could not train together.

·         In what units would these Black soldiers serve? Segregation of Black soldiers from Whites was a time-honored tradition.

·         What should be done if some of these men qualified for commissions as officers? It was still widely believed that the Black man lacked the intelligence and leadership abilities of his White counterpart.

In all, nearly a half-million Black Americans were trained and readied for service with the American Expeditionary force. By mid-1917 a number of Black soldiers were training at Camp Dodge near Des Moines, Iowa, where 625 of them earned commissions as second lieutenants. The war department established the Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions, nearly all-Black in composition but now at least commanded by a large contingent of Black officers as well. (During the war Fort Dodge trained and commissioned 639 Black American officers, a historic stride. Even so, though 13 percent of the American World War I active Army was Black, less than seven tenths of one per cent were commissioned as officers.)

Despite these great strides, change can be agonizingly slow, and World War I American society continued to cling to its views of the Negro as inferior to the white. In the military, although 140,000 Black soldiers were deployed to Europe where no less than 40,000 of them saw combat and served with honor and distinction, the accepted practice was to relegate Black soldiers to support tasks. They served the Army as janitors, stevedores, cooks, and in other menial tasks. Black combat units were unceremoniously turned over to the control of the French Army causing Colonel William Hayward, commander of the 396th Infantry Regiment to comment: "Our great American general (John J. Pershing) simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away."

It was a stinging indictment of the man known as Black Jack Pershing for his service as a White officer in the Black 10th Cavalry during the Indian Campaigns and the Spanish-American War. To the general's credit, early in the War when the British government requested that Negro troops NOT be sent overseas, Pershing returned his official reply to note that, "Colored combat divisions" were being sent to France and: "I cannot and will not discriminate against these men."

The General's admirable statement aside, discrimination and segregation were a way of life for the soldiers who would one day father the Greatest Generation. Many White soldiers refused to serve with Black soldiers, and at home the Jim Crow laws forced Black soldiers to sit in the back of troop trains, far behind the white troopers, when regiments were transported to awaiting ships from their training camps.

During the war, two soldiers of Colonel Hayward's 369th Infantry became the first American enlisted men, Black or White, to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Those few Black units that did see combat served with great distinction. Along the way Black soldiers earned hundreds of Croix de Guerres, dozens of Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars—but NO Medals of Honor.* Thousands gave their lives on the battlefield, proving that death was the one force in the world of American military that did NOT discriminate against any man on the basis of race.

Beyond that however, World War I was NOT a defining moment in the push for American civil rights. Race riots in the military resulted in deaths and court martial, verbal and physical abuse by civilians directed towards Black soldiers training at Spartanburg, South Carolina, made headlines, and labor strikes by Negro stevedores tended to overshadow the valor of the Black soldier on the battlefield. Major General Robert Lee Bullard, who commanded the Second Army including the Ninety-second division, wrote in his memoirs that the Negro soldier was, "Lazy, slothful, superstitious, imaginative…if you need combat soldiers, and especially if you need them in a hurry, don't put your time upon Negroes."

Such was the attitude that proliferated throughout much of America in the post-World War I years. Between 1918 and 1937 the Negro soldier presence dropped to less than two percent of the Army and National Guard. It became increasingly apparent that, despite the Black man's efforts to prove his equal in time of war, military service alone could not achieve the dream of Americans not being judged by the color of one's skin but by the content of their character.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the son and grandson of prominent Southern ministers. Reverend A.D. Williams, young King's grandfather, pastured the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and was founder of that city's NAACP chapter. Martin Luther King, Sr. went on to succeed his father as that church's pastor, and himself became a leader in the civil rights movement. He became the single most pivotal force in equal treatment for all.

In his youth King had witnessed first hand the hypocrisy of American society in so much as the civil rights of Black Americans was concerned. When King was seven years old, West Point cadet Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. walked up to salute General John J. Pershing to receive his diploma and commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. army. He was the first Negro since Charles D. Young, forty-seven years earlier, to graduate from the Point. The son of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., one of the few high ranking Black officers still in the Army after World War I, as cadet the younger man had not been spared prejudice and discrimination at the U.S. Military Academy. White Upperclassmen tried to force him out with silent treatment, instructors did their best to derail his plans for graduation, and during his four years as a cadet he lived alone in segregation, while other cadets shared two-man rooms.

In 1940 Captain Davis was a professor of military science at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama when his father was promoted to Brigadier General. That same year President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act which included verbiage designed to end racial discrimination in the military forces. The following year the younger Davis broke the "color barrier" in the Army Air Corps, which had long maintained that Negroes "lacked technical ability to fly airplanes." In the years of war that followed, the Tuskegee Airman would prove this prejudice totally in error.

Twelve years old when World War II broke out, King no doubt also knew the stories of how other elder Black brothers had tried to earn their own place in the Greatest Generation's effort to save our world. Everyone, it seemed, knew the story of Dorie Miller, the Black mess steward on board the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

At the start of World War II the U.S. Navy was among the most hostile of the services towards Black recruits. There were no Black officers in the Navy, and those Black men who chose to serve in enlisted roles were banished to the galley to cook or serve meals to officers in their quarters. They were not allowed combat training and most served their time without ever being allowed to train with or handle any form of weaponry. Despite this lack of training, when Japanese bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Messman Miller ignored the danger of incoming rounds and roiling explosions to race towards a silent machinegun. With no prior training, the brave 23-year old sailor raked the heavens with return fire, shooting down at least three enemy aircraft until his ammunition was exhausted.

One would think the actions of Dorie Miller provided ample proof to the World War II Navy that Black sailors were no different from White sailors. Six months after Pearl Harbor Dorie Miller received our Country's second highest award, the Navy Cross, from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. The young hero became a symbol of Black valor for millions of young black boys back home, his picture repeatedly published and his name a household word. But during World War II Navy traditions and prejudices died hard. A year after his heroic action the aircraft carrier Liscome Bay was sunk at sea by a Japanese torpedo. Among the dead, which included most of the crew, was Dorie Miller…a combat hero who was still at sea and still serving his Nation in uniform…as a Naval mess steward!

Into the 1960s the Greatest Generation, despite its valor and sacrifice to save our world, continued to struggle with the prejudices of its forefathers. In World War II segregated military units continued to be SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), with the soldiers of many white units refusing to fight side by side with their Black counterparts. The perception of the Black soldier as inferior both intellectually and militarily continued to relegate most Negroes to support roles. More than one million Blacks served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II (90% of them in the Army), with a half-million serving in overseas duty. It is a sad commentary that 75% of these were confined to roles of quartermaster, engineer or transportation. While young Black men and women (nearly 4,000 Black women served in World War II) pleaded for an equal opportunity to participate in the defense of their Nation in the same manner as other Americans, it was often an opportunity denied.

Those soldiers who did see combat, particularly those of all-Black units like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Ninety-second Division and the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, served and sacrificed with the same valor as other soldiers. A 1943 War Department press release listed nearly 300 high awards including Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars to Black soldiers during the war. But of 455 Medals of Honor awarded during or in the ten years following World War II, not ONE was awarded to a Black American serviceman, sailor or Marine.**

On the positive side of the ledger, the service of these Black Americans did set in motion more badly needed changes in the segregated and highly prejudicial military establishment. In 1941 the U.S. Army began integrating its officers' candidate schools, and on June 1, 1942, the United States Marine Corps admitted its first Black recruit in a century. He was a former Nashville, Tennessee, dogcatcher named George Thompson. On March 17, 1944, as the war was winding to a conclusion, the U.S. Navy commissioned its first group of black officers who became known as the "Golden Thirteen." Two months after the Golden Thirteen got their commissions; the War Department issued a directive prohibiting racial discrimination in transportation and recreational facilities on all army bases.

Ten years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the rear of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, a young Army Lieutenant on a military base in Texas similarly refused to move to the back of a bus. His action was seen as a disobedient act that prompted criminal charges, but he was completely vindicated at his subsequent court-martial. Years later that same young soldier, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, would again challenge the racial barriers in the United States, this time as a civilian, when he became the first Black professional baseball player.

The most sweeping change in American civil rights since the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War was probably Executive Order 9981, issued by President Harry S Truman on July 26, 1948. That act, which desegregated all elements of the U.S. Military and established the Fahy Committee to examine all existing regulations and practices in the military, placed in effect a National policy of "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

Six months after Executive Order 9981 was issued, the young son of a poor Mississippi sharecropper received his flight wings at Pensacola, Florida, to become the Navy's first Black aviator. Jesse LeRoy Brown's odyssey had not been without its share of confronting hate and prejudice. Naval instructors had been quite to the point in telling him during training that, "No nigger would ever sit his ass in a Navy cockpit."

When hostilities broke out in Korea on June 25, 1950, Ensign Brown's ship the U.S.S. Leyte, returned from its post in the Mediterranean for repairs before assignment to Korean waters. The return to American shores afforded the young Black pilot opportunity for a five-day visit with his wife and young daughter in Mississippi. Following the all-too-brief reunion, while en route to Birmingham, Alabama, to catch a flight back to his ship for deployment to combat duty, he was almost denied a seat on the bus…because he was Black.

Three months later Ensign Brown's Corsair lay crumpled on a Korean hillside as yet another Black hero shed the same red blood as his white counterparts, in the service of his country. But to the men with whom he served in combat, Jesse Brown had become simply a Naval Aviator…not a Black aviator. In his service during time of war, Brown at last found that measure of civil rights and respect he was due. In his last moments of life a White fellow pilot, Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, deliberately crashed his own fighter on the hillside in a failed rescue attempt. Hudner then stayed beside Jesse until he died. (For his own actions, Tom Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor and Jesse Brown received the Distinguished Flying Cross. On March 18, 1972, the U.S. Navy commissioned the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown (DD-1089), the first Naval vessel in history to be named for a Black American.)

The Korean War became the first conflict since the war of 1812 in which, in SOME cases, Black and White soldiers and sailors fought side-by-side in the same units. The process of integration continued throughout the war and, along the way, transformed the Marine Corps beyond almost any other branch of service. At the beginning of the Korean War Blacks numbered only 1,075 troops in the nearly 75,000-man strong Corps. Nearly half of these Black Marines served as stewards. By the end of the Korean War the Marine Corps achieved almost total integration at all levels.

Of 139 soldiers cited with the Medal of Honor for their valor in battle during the Korean War, two were posthumous awards to Black soldiers. It marked the first time since the Spanish-American War that any Black soldier would be so highly recognized for his heroism and sacrifice. That fact aside, both Private First Class William Henry Thompson and Sergeant Cornelius Charlton earned their Medals of Honor while serving in the 24th Infantry Regiment, a unit that even during the Korean War remained a segregated all-Black Regiment.

In 1954, a year after the end hostilities in Korea, the last segregated military unit was disbanded. That same year the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education to integrate another American establishment…the school system. It was also the same year that a sailor named Carl Brashear broke the color bearer to become the Navy's first Black diver. The acclaimed 2001 movie "Men of Honor" details his efforts and provides a somber picture of a military force integrated by law, but still divided by intense prejudice and hatred.

The following year the young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. received his degree in systematic theology, to return to the South and pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The struggle for equal rights for Black Americans was moving from its battlefront in the military, which was now quickly becoming a model for the rest of American society, to the cities and towns of America.

Five days after Rosa Parks refused to adhere to Montgomery city rules mandating segregation on buses, the city's Black residents launched a boycott and elected Reverend King president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The action launched King into a leadership role in the growing Civil Rights movement and, two years later along with other southern Black ministers, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In the interim, in December 1956, the US Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional.

As the Civil Rights movement became almost another American Civil War, many leaders emerged in both the Black and White communities. American servicemen were called out to enforce racial integration in Arkansas, and to protect the civil rights of students in Alabama, as well as elsewhere. Dr. King continued to rise in prominence as the leading Black voice for civil rights, much more so after his house was bombed and he was arrested and convicted along with other leaders on charges of conspiring to interfere with bus company operations through his boycott.

In 1958 Dr. King published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The following year he made a tour of India learning Gandhian non-violent strategies to social change. It was Dr. King's advocacy for changing America through non-violent protest that perhaps most marked him as an American hero of the 1960s, but it was his oratorical skills that made him most effective.

As the 60s generation came of age other leaders arose within the Black community, including the more militant leaders like Stokeley Carmichael and Malcolm X. Carmichael, for his own part, originally joined in the organization of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1960 in an effort to get out the vote in the elections of that year. As the civil rights movement became more and more a violent battleground in the years that followed, Carmichael became active in the Black Panther Party.

Malcolm X, the son of a Baptist minister in Lansing, Michigan, also drew a wide following. Born Malcolm Little, as a young man he had witnessed the burning of the family home by the Ku Klux Klan, and a few years later the murder of his father. Malcolm always believed his father's death was directly related to the Ku Klux Klan, and lost not only his father in the tragedy, but his mother who never recovered from her grief and had to be committed to a mental institution.

Beyond their efforts to gain civil rights for all Americans regardless of race, these three prominent leaders of the movement had at least one additional attribute in common; all were gifted and skillful orators. Their message resonated across a broad segment of American society, Black and White, and primarily among the young.

The 60s and the young people of our Nation will long be remembered for their radical and revolutionary rejection of tradition, and for their rebellion against parents, government, the church, and other forms of authority. Ours is a generation today that is often castigated for a moral and spiritual decay in our Nation during the period.

It is true that these young, in their own search for meaning and purpose, often dropped out of established social custom to reject ageless traditions and ways of life. At the same time, they may have proved the words of Thomas Jefferson that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing." Among the traditions many of them rejected from the generation of their fathers and grandfathers, were the long-held racial prejudices that divided our nation.

The civil rights movement provided these young men and women with a cause and a new sense of purpose. The battle often became not only one of Blacks against Whites, but generational; a war of younger against the elder. While the movement didn't then, or even since, erase racial prejudice from American society, it did become a giant leap towards a better society.

Although the most extreme and militant youth clamored after the likes of Malcolm X, the mainstream tended to look to Dr. Martin Luther King for guidance. His non-violent strategy appealed to a youthful population enamored with the ideals for peace. More importantly perhaps, his words struck a chord within the hearts of a congregation that by the nature of youthful idealism; prefers positive DREAMS to a negative REALITY.

Dr. King voiced that dream in his most remembered oration which was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 23, 1963. His dream envisioned an American society that believed all men were created equal, sharing equal opportunity and equal responsibility. In 1963 such hopes appeared to me nothing short of a daydream. But it resonated with a generation of Americans unafraid to discard old traditions and explore new ways of living.

In the year following Dr. King's famous Dream Speech he was named Time magazines' "Man of the Year" and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But as improvements came only slowly, his non-violent approach to change drew increasing criticism from other Black leaders. Despite all this, the venerable Dr. King's preeminence as the leading voice of the civil rights movement was never supplanted, and remains one of the most positive beacons of guidance ever shed upon our society during the turbulent 60s.

While many of the older generation resisted the Civil Rights movement on the basis of old and ingrained prejudices, as the movement grew and its success appeared more and more imminent, Dr. King became preferable to the more radical among the younger Black leaders. This was especially true where the Vietnam War was concerned.

In the early stages, the veterans who had survived World War II generally supported American involvement in Vietnam. Black leaders like Carmichael and Malcolm X became quite vocal in their opposition to the war, and even challenged Dr. King for his early silence on the subject.

By the mid-sixties however, the sight of numerous young Americans returning home in black body bags started to shake American confidence. It also appeared that an unusually large number of the casualties were Black soldiers. In the end, Dr. King broke his silence and lost much of his support in conservative White America because of his growing, and eventually vocal, opposition to the Vietnam War.

Until his death by assassination on April 4, 1968, Reverend King continued to mourn the large number of dead young Blacks that had fallen on the fields of battle, ten thousand miles away. The number of African-American casualties was indeed staggering in comparison to all previous wars, leading many to claim that Blacks were being committed to combat roles in excess of white soldiers.

The true fact of the matter was, for the first time in American history, the military had found a level of true civil rights for all soldiers, sailors and marines regardless of race. This equality could be seen on two distinct levels:

The number of Black soldiers serving in the military:

In previous wars, resistance to Blacks in military service limited their numbers to totals far lower than their proportion of the American population. Even during World War II Black soldiers comprised only about 7% of the military population. During the Vietnam War, though the Negro population represented only about 10% of American Society, 13.5% of the young men of service age were Black. Of a truth, the Vietnam War included a far larger percentage of Black soldiers than any war in prior history. That was a credit to the growing demand for civil rights, not a negative to be deplored.

During the Vietnam War Black soldiers had equal opportunity for combat assignments:

During the Vietnam War the ancient myth that Blacks were inferior as soldiers no longer held as it had in previous wars. For the first time in history (with some exceptions from the Korean War) Black soldiers were not denied the opportunity to, as many Blacks had complained in previous wars, fight to defend their country like any other Americans.

Though reports in the media in the mid-1960s, as well as the rebuke of civil rights leaders like Malcolm X propagandized that the war in Vietnam was a "White man's war being waged by underprivileged young Black soldiers," the truth is far different. "During the ten-year period of the war, 7,257 African-Americans died in Vietnam, or 12.5 percent of the KIAs (Killed in Action), slightly under their proportion in the population of draft age males.

The authors of the acclaimed book Stolen Valor note: "Blacks were not in Vietnam because an evil government drafted them out of the ghettos to use as cannon fodder; they were there because of the courage and patriotism of young black men, despite the fact they lived in a country where they frequently experienced racism."[i]

Even as Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of a dream for a new American society where, "My four children will…live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," that dream was being realized in the one segment of American society against which he and other leaders spoke out.

In the jungles of Vietnam, for the first time in military history, soldiers were judged by their actions and their character, not the color of their skin. For the first time in any war, Black officers were deemed competent to command White soldiers. Black pilots flew beside white counterparts, using helicopters to save the lives of wounded men of all races, or flying the most intricate of bombers and fighters to defeat the enemy.

In the mess halls, white cooks served meals to Black and White soldiers. In the jungles a white infantryman stood back to back with a Black infantryman as they worked together to hold a common enemy at bay. The exaggerated reports of the media and subsequent sensationalized Vietnam War movies cranked out by Hollywood aside, the true fact of life in Vietnam was that the playing field was leveled for every man. While others at home sought the meaning of equality, the Vietnam War finally defined it. Black, white, red and yellow, every man had equal opportunity to serve, equal opportunity to fight, and equal opportunity to die in the service of his country.


* In the early 1990s a review of these high awards resulted in the upgrade of the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously awarded to Corporal Freddie Stowers to the Medal of Honor. It was presented to his surviving sisters at the White House by President George Bush on April 24, 1991.

** Following the 1991 presentation of the Medal of Honor to Corporal Freddie Stowers for World War I valor, a similar review was made of all high awards to Black servicemen during World War II. The review resulted in upgrades, and on January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Medals of Honor to seven Black heroes for their World War II valor. Only Lieutenant Vernon Baker of the Ninety-second Division survived to personally receive the award.


[i] Burkett, B.G. and Whitley, Glenna. Stolen Valor, Verity Press, Inc., Dallas, Texas. 1998 (p 454)

Also Consulted for this Chaper:
Lee, Irvin H., Negro Medal of Honor Men, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1967

Greene, Robert Elwell, Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973: A Reference and Pictoral History, Johnson Publishing, Chicago, ILL., 1974

Fleetwood, Christian, The Negro as Soldier, Pamphlet published by Professor George Wm. Cook, Howard University Print, 1895

Katz, William Loren. A History of Multicultural America: World War II to the New Frontier, Raintree Steck-Vaugn Publishers, Austin, Texas, 1993

Taylor, Theodore. The Flight of Jesse LeRoy Brown, Avon Books, 1998

 

 

The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
All Rights Reserved

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Cover & Introduction
     Preface
Out With the Old
     The Defining Generation

I. - Defining the New
     John Fitzgerald Kennedy
     Roger H.C. Donlon
     Robert Robin Moore
     Barry Sadler
     The Green Beret

II. - Defining Equality
     When Worlds Collide
     Dr. Martin Luther King
     Jimmy Stanford & Vince Yrineo
     Milton Lee Olive, III
     Specialist Lawrence Joel
     Sammy Lee Davis
     Black MOH Recipients - Vietnam War

III. - Defining the Role of the Sexes
     Evolution of a Husband
     Remember the Ladies
     Rosie the Riveter
     Dr. Marguerite Guzman Bouvard
     Linda G. Alvarado
     Karen Irene Offutt
     Women in Military Service
     Lieutenant General Carol Mutter
     The Modern Woman in Combat
IV. - Defining Human Rights
     My Brother's Keeper
     Who is My Brother
     Christopher Dodd & Christopher Shays
     Peace Corps Politicians (Memories)
     Don Bendell
     Sir Edward Artis
     General Colin L. Powell

V. - Defining Entertainment
     Life Imitating Art
     Troubled Waters
     Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
     Brian's Song
     All in the Family
     Adrian Cronauer

VI. - Defining Dissent

     From Berkeley With Love
     The Pen and the Sword
     General David Shoup
     Muhammad Ali
     John Forbes Kerry

VII. - Defining the Future of Politics
     An Act of Congress
     All Politics is....Hereditary?
     Hillary Rodham Clinton
     Condoleezza Rice
     James Henry Webb
The next Section is scheduled for posting on May 20, 2011
VIII. - Defining Memories
     Jaime Pacheco
     The Glory of their Deeds
     Jan Scruggs
     Delbert Schmeling
     Peter C. Lemon

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
The authors extend our thanks to the following who granted personal interviews for this work
: Roger Donlon (MOH), Robin Moore, Don Bendell, Jimmy Stanford, Vince Yrineo, Sammy L. Davis (MOH), Linda Alvarado, Karen Offutt, Lieutenant General Carol Mutter, Sir Edward Artis, General Colin L. Powell, Katharine Houghton, Adrian Cronauer, Jan Scruggs, Delbert Schmeling, and Peter Lemon (MOH).
Our thanks to the staff of the following who either wrote or allowed reprint of their own works for this book: Dr. Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, Don Bendell, Congressman Sam Farr, Congressman Thomas Petri, Congressman Mike Honda, Congressman Jim Walsh, Governor Jim Doyle, and Scott Baron.
Our special thanks also to the staff of the following who provided information and fact-checked the chapters related to their subject: Staff of Senator John Kerry, Staff of (then) Senator Hillary Clinton, Staff of Senator Jim Webb
A SPECIAL THANKS also to Dr. Marguerite Guzman Bouvard for his assistance in writing and editing the entire section on the Role of the Sexes.

 

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