Beyond Ordinary: America's freedom fighters of color: Heroes proved in liberating strife
I will never forget my last one-on-one visit with him a few days before his death. We talked about several things, including how he dealt with Mommy’s death nearly eight years prior and about his service in World War II as part of a segregated unit. I asked him how he could have fought for a country that treated “Negroes” so poorly and denied us our basic rights.
I will always remember his response. After lovingly chastising me for such a question, he then told me that while America as a nation is indeed founded upon principles of freedoms and rights for its citizenry, as individual citizens it is our foremost responsibility to ensure that those freedoms and rights are protected and preserved for others before ourselves.
At the time, and for many years thereafter, I failed to grasp what Daddy tried to teach me that day regarding the highest relationship between the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. I continued to harbor feelings that, although I was born in America, I was not really an American citizen. I felt American citizens were guaranteed certain rights and protections under the U.S. Constitution and should enjoy equality under the law.
Americans were supposed to have liberty and justice. And because I knew black people in the U.S. had been denied so many privileges of citizenship, I figured I wasn’t truly an American; rather, I was just another Negro born in the U.S. That feeling remained with me, at least to some degree, until the day I marched with my law school graduating class into Brigham Young University’s De Jong Concert Hall for my commencement ceremony.
It was April 1986, and by then I had been sworn into the U.S. Navy. As I proceeded into the hall I honestly must say that I was feeling very proud, not only because I was about to finish three years of intensive academic study, but also because I was about to make history as the first African-American graduate of the J. Reuben Clark Law School.
As the convocation program proceeded, I reflected upon my parents and grandparents and the dark history of the many generations before me. I also thought of my young family and the future that awaited us, with me set to begin active duty with the Navy soon. When the program reached the closing song, “America the Beautiful,” my emotions reached a crescendo and then overflowed as I attempted to sing these words:
Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
By the end of the convocation service, I had had an epiphany in realizing what Daddy, an American hero proved in liberating strife who more than self his country loved, had tried to teach me nearly 14 years earlier. It is the message and legacy that the many persons of color, from Crispus Attucks to Lt. Henry Flipper to my grandfathers to Gen. Colin Powell, have left us. It is the message embodied in the core values of the U.S. Air Force of which I was just reminded during my retirement ceremony a few days ago: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.
It is my hope and prayer that each person within the sound of my voice will honor and cherish the sacrifices and efforts shown by all who have contributed to our country through military service, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. May we as a people and a nation never forget those who gave so much to allow us to enjoy the blessings and privileges we now enjoy. May we always remember those who lived so well and died so valiantly for us, especially those who left our homeland and never returned.
And in honor of American veterans and patriots of all colors, ethnicities and eras, may we always carry within our hearts the inspiring words of Katharine Lee Bates' divine petition:
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Attorney Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU law school and former chair of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon."
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