“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”: Honoring African-American Service Personnel Who Paid the Ultimate Price for Freedom and Democracy

Experience has led me to understand that one of the most valid evaluation tools for the living is how they honor the dead. Hence, Memorial Day, a moment created for Americans to remember service personnel who died while serving this nation should hold significance to all. Considering that fallen soldiers died advancing freedoms that the average American enjoys without a second thought, one could argue that Memorial Day is the most sacred moment of all. So it is with an extreme reverence that I take this time to tip my hat to those courageous men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms I enjoy.

Predictably, when I examine the unequal balance between the contributions of and maligning of fallen African-American service men and women, my heart aches and my soul darkens. This sorrow increases when I consider that African-American soldiers have historically found themselves ‘between a rock and a hard place’ when examined by two distinct populations that have routinely questioned every parcel of their contribution to this nation.

The two populations that have regularly cast significant disdain toward African-American service personnel are ardent white racists and a “militant” cadre of Black Nationalists. The latter group has historically mocked and ridiculed black service personnel for their “foolish” decision to support a nation that has advanced freedoms for others across the globe while keeping their people oppressed within its national borders.

The alluded to attacks deny the crucial role black service personnel played in the creation and operation of this nation. Most are shocked to learn that the first to fall in the struggle to create this nation against tyrannical British rule that colonists ironically equated to “enslavement” was a black man named Crispus Attucks. Such ignorance regarding American history paves a road toward historically unsupportable assertions that rob black service personnel of their countless contributions to this nation while allowing whites to claim such valor for themselves.

Regardless of the conflict that this country was embroiled in — the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War — it is impossible to deny black servicepersons contributions. In fact, it is the black soldier who embodies the laudable virtues of this nation as he fought for democracy abroad while Jim Crow’s noose hung around his neck as a consistent reminder of his/her second-class citizenship within the borders of America.

Unfortunately for black service personnel, their commitment to advancing democracy in both foreign lands and the U.S., their laudable actions have routinely raised the ire of the Black Nationalist community.

We must never forget the remarks of Muhammad Ali regarding his refusal to serve this nation during Vietnam. Although the following comments were not aimed at Black G.I.’s, they did receive a slight jab from the Heavyweight Champion.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end…The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.”

Of course, Ali was not the alone in denouncing the participation of black men and women in “the white man’s war.” Within a mid-sixties context that birthed a decade of urban rebellions, groups such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense called for Black G.I.’s to return from Vietnam and fight for the people on the home front. In fact, many black soldiers such as Geronimo Pratt did return home and apply the military science they had learned in Vietnam to fight for their community.

One of the most biting criticisms of black men traveling to Vietnam to fight while their people were oppressed on American soil was Malcolm X. Malcolm could not reconcile the inconsistency that black service personnel exhibited in the two worlds they inhabited.

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it’s wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

In most cases, African-American military personnel was neither accepted by white soldiers nor celebrated by their Black Nationalist brothers and sisters who cited the U.S. Government as the principal enemy to the freedom of black people around the globe.

So I once again take this moment to salute the black service personnel that found themselves in a daunting position that amounted to a familiar position of being “between a rock and a hard place.” Your commitment and sacrifice although controversial to this very moment has been noted and I once again salute you for giving all.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2017.

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