Beyond Ordinary: America's freedom fighters of color: Heroes proved in liberating strife

Published: Friday, Nov. 11 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

It’s been more than a month since my last column. During that hiatus, some of my time was spent speaking to groups in Utah and Idaho. On Oct. 29 I had the privilege of being the keynote speaker at the Pocatello Idaho Branch of the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet Honoring America’s Veterans. The theme of the event was “Fulfilling America’s Promise.”

It was a very moving evening, especially the POW/MIA presentation, for all in attendance. I am a better person for having been there.

In celebration of American veterans, past and present, and in commemoration of Veterans Day, what follows are excerpts from my address that night, which was titled “American Freedom Fighters of Color: Heroes Proved in Liberating Strife.”

On Oct. 26, I participated in my retirement ceremony, capping more than 20 combined years of active and reserve military service in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

It was a wonderful occasion attended by family, friends and colleagues, one which provided me reason to reflect on what it meant for me personally, and for others generally, to serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. I am a third-generation veteran, with both my maternal and paternal grandfathers having served in World War I and my father having served in World War II. I suspect I even have ancestors who participated in the Civil War, although I have not yet been able to confirm that belief.

I am the great-grandson of a man born a slave in America. My surname comes from that man, Richard Benjamin Hamilton who was born property of descendants of American Revolution patriot Alexander Hamilton. As what happened with so many slaves following their freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation, Richard, who had no last name, being chattel of his owners, became associated with the surname of his last owner, so that by the 1870 census he was known as Richard Benjamin Hamilton.

Even my last name reflects the grand history of patriotic service and sacrifice characterized by so many of this great nation. I am blessed to have received a strong legacy of service to this nation from my forebears and others in my extended family.

As a person of color, and specifically as an African-American, I am not unique in having been handed down such a rich tradition and powerful legacy of military service to the United States of America. Blacks and other persons of color have served with honor, valor and distinction in America’s armed forces since before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Men and women of color continue to serve America and Americans today, representing and upholding the highest standards and values associated with our great nation. It is these valiant and selfless patriots that I, with gratitude, honor and pride, wish to address.

Found within the poem penned by Katharine Lee Bates — a poem that eventually became the lyrics of the beloved American patriotic hymn “America the Beautiful” — are the words:

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife

Who more than self their country loved

And liberty more than life …

O beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears …

America! America!

May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness

And every gain divine.

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