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

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

Those words perfectly represent the men and women of color who, as heroes tempered and refined in the unyielding and awful heat of America’s prejudice and injustices, served their fellow citizens and children of God throughout the earth with selfless sacrifice. They truly “more than self their country loved” and demonstrated in action their regard for “liberty more than life.”

They had a dream, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, and as we do now, that saw and sees beyond the present. A patriot’s dream of a gleaming future, where peace and plenty abound, undimmed by the tears shed by hosts of victims of poverty, prejudice, pride and power. A dream of a place and time where war is no more, when swords are turned into plowshares and when the battle cry shall be “Onward, Christian soldiers, Christ the royal master leads against the foe!”

Even in times of war and conflict American patriots of color recognized that any success for America was to be founded and achieved upon their individual and collective nobleness. That nobleness stemmed from the dignity, decency and gallantry handed down by honorable and self-sacrificing forebears who taught them in word and by example that neither they as individuals nor our nation as a whole could have success or make gains without faith in and reliance upon the divine.

These virtually unknown American heroes and patriots of color are exemplified by men and women such as Lt. Henry O. Flipper, who in 1877 became the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Afterward, while serving his country, an intolerant commanding officer falsely accused Lt. Flipper of embezzling funds and court-martialed him on charges of embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer.

At the general court-martial, Lt. Flipper was acquitted of the embezzlement charge but found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and dismissed from the Army. Undeterred, Henry Flipper went on as a civilian to distinguish himself as an engineer in private and government service. Throughout his life and until his death in 1940, Flipper maintained his innocence.

His descendants kept fighting for his honor, which eventually led to findings by the Army that his conviction and punishment were improper, and he posthumously received an honorable discharge. On Feb. 19, 1999, Lt. Flipper was granted a pardon of his court-martial conviction by President Bill Clinton. At the White House ceremony announcing the pardon, Clinton stated:

"Today's ceremony is about a moment in 1882, when our government did not do all it could do to protect an individual American's freedom. It is about a moment in 1999 when we correct the error and resolve to do even better in the future. The man we honor today was an extraordinary American. Henry Flipper did all his country asked him to do. Though born a slave in Georgia, he was proud to serve America: the first African-American graduate of West Point; the first African-American commissioned officer in the regular United States Army. One hundred and seventeen years have now elapsed since his discharge. That's … too long to let an injustice lie uncorrected. …

"With great pleasure and humility, I now offer a full pardon to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper of the United States Army. This good man now has completely recovered his good name. It has been a trying thing for the family to fight this long battle, to confront delays and bureaucratic indifference, but this is a day of affirmation.

"It teaches us that, although the wheels of justice turn slowly at times, still they turn. It teaches that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause. Most of all, it teaches us — Lt. Flipper's family teaches us — that we must never give up the fight to make our country live up to its highest ideals. … His remarkable life story is important to us, terribly important, as we continue to work — on the edge of a new century and a new millennium — on deepening the meaning of freedom at home, and working to expand democracy and freedom around the world, to give new life to the great experiment begun in 1776."

Lt. Flipper’s life and service, the efforts of his descendants and the actions of the governmental officials involved in the tragic injustice he suffered and in the restoration of his good name, epitomize, metaphorically, another verse of Bates’ poem:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

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