It should have been a normal trend of thought for the untold thousands of African American soldiers, sailors, and air corpsmen: having served with valor and shed their blood against the forces of the Axis, they aspired to share in the spoils of victory. Black men helped save the world from the fascists, and they distinguished themselves in the war in tandem with their white counterparts. So they assumed they’d come home to equality. They believed that the old way of racial humiliation would now disappear.
Freddie Gray had no desire to validate history.
They thought this fervently in 1945—seventy years ago. Now they appear to be random prey for police officers, from Ferguson to New York to Los Angeles to Baltimore. Freddie Gray had no desire to validate history.
Granted: in World War II, black servicemen fought in segregated units. They were too often relegated to inferior or more tedious or treacherous duties, as cooks, ditch diggers, mail runners, mechanics, butlers, mine sweepers. But they carried a vision, against the blinding incongruity of the battlefield, from the Philippines to Normandy, that the war—and their ultimate brotherhood with their better-fed and more often promoted white counterparts—would pave the way to an America that was also liberated.
Sadly, this dream proved as difficult as it was for GIs to traverse the steep cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. The lurid grip of state-sanctioned segregation in the South, known as Jim Crow, was unaffected by the military success of the Americans.
“Jim Crow” was unimpressed; he remained grim, unyielding, and evil. Men who had faced an incomprehensible enemy in war came home without a trace of the euphoric aura that seized the nation. The black soldier could die with his white comrade in Italy, but he still could not drink from the same fountain in Louisiana.
He had helped free children of all creeds from despotism in France and North Africa, but he could not send his own children to the same schools as his white equivalent. He could personally recount the history of the greatest armed struggle for human dignity ever fought, but his children could only read about it in substandard, unheated, poorly ventilated school buildings relegated to separate neighborhoods and using hand-me-down desks, chairs, blackboards, and even textbooks that had been disposed of by white schools.
He was drafted to serve his nation, but he returned to still being denied the right to vote. He won the war but still lost the peace.
He was often enough bitter, disappointed, and angry about it. Black Americans had never been passive about the systemic degradation that pervaded their lives, the lynching, the denial of education, unionization, housing, or even the opportunity to own property and gain a promotion.
Freddie Gray, whose spine was severed, and who died while in police hands, must have been feeling something of that wholesale betrayal that all of us silent white folks are underwriting.
See my current book, ‘DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers’