For many service members, protecting and upholding the Constitution also means serving an imperfect nation still struggling to become more perfect union. From slaves who were promised their freedom in exchange for service in the American Revolution to Japanese American soldiers who fought while their families were imprisoned by the US government to LGBT service members forced to hid a portion of their life or lose their livelihood, civil rights and military service have always been uncomfortable bedfellows.
And yet, military service has also been seen as a venue to achieve fuller civil rights. The hope for full citizenship and freedom from discrimination through the valor and patriotism that African Americans showed on the battlefield, in the skies, and on the water is, perhaps, best reflected in this stanza from Langston Hughes. It immortalizes Dorie Miller, the Messman Third Class on the USS West Virginia who, during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, manned a 50-caliber Browning until he was ordered to abandon ship. Miller’s heroism even in the face of discrimination was a touchstone and rallying cry for a generation:
When Dorie Miller took gun in hand—
Jim Crow started his last stand.
Our battle yet is far from won
But when it is, Jim Crow’ll be done.
We gonna bury that son-of-a-gun!
Many service members, having experienced discrimination in the civilian and military worlds, have become fierce civil rights advocates, fighting for the freedom at home that they fought for on the battlefield.
1. Medgar Evers
Before becoming NAACP’s first Mississippi field secretary, Evers served on the Red Ball Express during World War II. This truck convoy system provided the US and their allies with supplies after D-Day. Evers survived the fierce war in Europe and returned to the south where he worked towards school integration, voting rights, and other civil rights for the African-American community in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1963, Byron De La Beckwith a white supremacist and member of the White Citizens’ Council, murdered Evers. Two all-white juries failed to reach verdicts and he was only convicted in 1994. Evers was buried with full military honors and his grave can be visited at Arlington National Cemetery.
2. Hiram R. Revels
Born into the South but a member of a free black family in 1827, Revels was a barber and an ordained minister. During the Civil War, he fought for the Union, organizing two black regiments and participating in the Battle of Vicksburg. After the war, he made Mississippi his home where he was elected to alderman and then the state senate. In 1870, he was chosen by the state to fill a vacant seat in the US Senate, despite protestations that Revel did not meet citizenship requirements because he was African American. As a Senator, Revels worked for equal educational and economic opportunities and voting rights for the black community. Perhaps surprisingly, he was also in favor of “the immediate restoration of citizenship to former Confederates.”
3. Jackie Robinson
Best known as the first black baseball player who integrated the white major leagues, it is less known that Jackie Robinson was also a veteran who stood for civil rights in the military. As a corporal at Fort Riley, Robinson was part of a group of black service members that met with boxing champion, Private Joe Louis. During the meeting, “they mentioned the lack of black officers to Louis, who mentioned it later in Washington to Truman Gibson, an African-American civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry Stimson.”
As a result, Robinson earned a commission and served at Fort Hood with the all-black 761st Tank Battalion as a lieutenant. In 1944, as a lieutenant, Robinson was court-martialed when he refused to move to the back of a military bus (which had been desegregated). He was brought up on five charges, was only prosecuted on two, and was found not guilty of all. It is speculated that without the acquittal, he most likely would not have been picked up by the Brooklyn Dodgers— altering the history of sports and civil rights in the US forever.
4. Henry Ossian Flipper
While not the first African American cadet to attend West Point, in 1877, Flipper was the first to graduate– which also made him the Army’s first commissioned black officer. Given his commission, Flipper became the first African American leader of Troop A of the 10th Cavalry Regiment– the Buffalo Soldiers. As he served, his white commanding officer accused him of embezzlement, a charge he beat but that ultimately led to a dishonorable discharge. It was later found that his commanding officer had framed him. Flipper wrote two books, Colored Cadet at West Point (published a year after graduation) and Negro Frontiersman: The Western Memoirs of Henry O. Flipper (published posthumously), and was also known for his engineering skills. His system for ditch drainage at Fort Sill– “Flipper’s Ditch”– became a National Historic Landmark. President Clinton granted Flipper an honorable discharge 59 years after his death.
5. Percy Sutton
Advocacy was always in Sutton’s blood. As a 13-year-old, he was beaten by Texas law enforcement for distributing NAACP brochures in an all-white neighborhood. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sutton enlisted with the Army and became an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen. Eventually honorably discharged as a captain, he used the G.I. Bill to enroll in Columbia University where he earned a law degree. Under the assumption that he had failed the bar (he had actually passed), Sutton enlisted in the Air Force and served in the Korean War. After returning from the war, Sutton represented Malcolm X until his assassination and then turned to investing in black media companies and assets, including purchasing and renovating the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.