Black vets: complicated past, unsung present

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369th Infantry The Harlem Hell Fighters

369th Infantry The Harlem Hell Fighters

I was listening to Tom Joyner last week, and his Little Known Black History Fact was about a regiment of Black soldiers known as the Harlem Hellfighters. They were the 369th Infantry Regiment, and they became legendary during World War I (WWI).

I’m assuming that Tom chose that history fact in honor of Veterans’ Day, a holiday about which I’ve always been torn. And while I recognize that there have been soldiers of all races and ethnicities, I’m going to use my prerogative to focus on the Black experience for a moment.

Black soldiers have fought in every war this country has fought, even before there was a “United States”. On the one hand, I recognize the need to honor those Black soldiers who have fought for the ideals of America, even when America was not just falling painfully short of those ideals, but actually being blatantly hypocritical towards those ideals (i.e. saving democracy in the world while denying the vote within its own borders). In fact, to begin with, the reason the Harlem Hellfighters were in Europe during WWI was because of racism back in South Carolina, and the reason they ended up assigned to the French army was because the U.S. would not give them combat roles. With backdrops like this, Black soldiers such as the Harlem Hellfighters and many others for centuries have done much to demonstrate Black courage and dignity.

But on the other hand, Black soldiers have too often participated in wars of aggression, greed and imperialism–wars which were often aimed at other people of color. From the Buffalo Soldiers and their battles with the Native Americans to the Philippines, from Vietnam to Panama and Grenada, Black soldiers have had to fight against folks that look like them for reasons that they must have known were, at best, questionable. In some cases, the irony of their predicament have caused Black soldiers to show compassion for their foes, while in other cases it did not seem to make a difference.

So clearly the experience of enlisted Black soldiers is part of why I’m torn about Veterans Day. But I’m also torn because of the experiences of Black veterans who weren’t actually enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces. These are veterans of a different kind of war—the FBI’s war against Black America. In this war, the General was not Eisenhower or Macarthur; it was J. Edgar Hoover, and his primary targets were the Black Panthers. At the heart of this war was a Black Panther 10 Point Program which included a demand for universal health care.

Clearly such demands were a threat to democracy.

As a result of this war, many Panthers were locked away in jail for crimes they did not commit. Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt is one example who was able to eventually prove his innocence and get released from jail after 27 years—longer than the amount of time that Nelson Mandela was in prison. However, many were not quite as “fortunate” as Geronimo and are still languishing behind bars. This includes freedom fighters such as Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur and Jalil Muntaqim.

Other veterans of the FBI war were forced to flee the country and live in exile. Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun are two of the better know exiles, but we should not get lulled into thinking that they are somehow safe from U.S. authorities that still have bounties on their heads.

Of course, not all the soldiers in the FBI’s war against Black America were able to survive. Many, like Fred Hampton in Chicago, were murdered.

No, it is not a simple thing, this Veterans Day. I don’t have all the answers, but i do know that it takes deeper thought than the knee-jerk reaction of wrapping ourselves in the red, white and blue the way the government and mainstream media wants us to. If that makes me unpatriotic, so be it.

I’ll be in good company.


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Author: Cliff Albright (3 Articles)

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