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.
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
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine.
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
Across the wilderness.
God mend thy every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law.
The words also perfectly illustrate the bona fide and never-ending need for American patriots, both in and out of uniform. That need has existed since colonists inhabited this land. American patriots of color have served selflessly and honorably in fulfilling that need since before the nation was established. They will continue to do so until the end.
American history is replete with examples of patriots of color who have done so much for a nation that did not reciprocate such service, honor and protection. Black, Latino and Native American men and women have served our nation in every war and conflict since the American Revolution. Asian American and Pacific Islander men and women have served and fought on behalf of the United States since the War of 1812. Numerous persons of every ethnic group have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration given by the United States government.
Perhaps no conflict and era in American history represents the character and soul of American patriots of color more than World War II. For those with more than a vague familiarity of U.S. history, the mere mention of groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo code talkers, the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 158th Regimental Combat Team, and the WACs and WAVEs evokes emotions of awe, inspiration and deep gratitude.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American pilots associated with the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. They were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces.
At a time when African-Americans in many U.S. states still were subject to racist Jim Crow laws and while the American military was racially segregated, the Tuskegee Airmen overcame the obstacles and challenges of being subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the Army. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction for our country, becoming one of the most revered group of military aviators in America’s history.
The Navajo code talkers were a small band of Native American soldiers who created an unbreakable code from the ancient language of their ancestors and changed the course of modern history. When America's so-called best cryptographers were falling short, these young Navajo men put off the history of mistreatment and injustice shown their people by the U.S. government and sacrificed for the betterment of all Americans and the world. They braved the dense jungles of Guadalcanal and the exposed beachheads of Iwo Jima to transmit secret communications on the battlefields of World War II.
These modest sheepherders and farmers were able to fashion the most ingenious and successful code in military history, drawing upon their proud warrior tradition to serve with distinction in every major engagement of the Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945. Their unbreakable code played a pivotal role in saving countless lives and did much to hasten the war's end.
In the wake of Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, many U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were classified as "enemy aliens." On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the relocation and internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese who lived along the Pacific Coast of the United States to camps called "war relocation camps."
In Hawaii, 1,200 to 1,800 Japanese-Americans were interned. Still, a battalion of Nisei volunteers, many of whom had family members interned, was formed in May 1942 as the 100th Infantry Battalion. While fighting in Italy, they saw fierce combat and came to be known as the "Purple Heart Battalion" due to their high casualty rate.
In January 1943, the U.S. War Department announced the formation of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team made up of Nisei volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland. In June 1944, the 442nd joined forces with the 100th Infantry in Europe and incorporated the 100th into the 442nd. Due to their outstanding bravery and the heavy combat duty they faced, the 100/442nd RCT became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. More than 18,000 individual decorations for bravery, 9,500 Purple Hearts and seven presidential distinguished unit citations were given.
The 158th Regimental Combat Team was an Army National Guard infantry unit from Arizona made up of many Americans of Latino origin. Known as the “Bushmasters,” after the venomous pit vipers found in South America, because of each combat soldier’s extensive training and expertise in jungle warfare, knife fighting and unarmed hand-to-hand combat techniques, the 158th RCT was one of the most successful jungle combat units in World War II history.
A 1943 article in Popular Mechanics recorded the abilities of the individual bushmaster jungle soldier in this manner: "One of America's most colorful and least known soldiers of World War II is the Bushmaster. ... His tactics are borrowed from native jungle fighters, the American Indian, British commandos and exponents of judo and the Shanghai underworld. ...
"His average age is 22 and his favorite weapon is the long-bladed machete. ... The Bushmaster bows to no man in the art of hand-to-hand fighting and any unwary (enemy) who crosses his path would probably never know what hit him.”
But perhaps the highest praise given the Bushmasters came from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, general of the Army during World War II, when he said of them, “No greater fighting combat team has ever deployed for battle.”
Women have served in the military and on the battlefield since the American Revolution, beginning primarily as nurses, water bearers, cooks, laundresses and saboteurs, and women of color have likewise been a part of America’s military fabric since the beginning until the present day, when they now serve as combat officers, fighter pilots and naval commanders.
During World War II, the Army established the Women Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which was converted to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. The Navy recruited women into its Women's Reserve, called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), starting in 1942.
The Coast Guard also established its women's reserve known as the SPARS (after the motto semper paratus — always ready) in 1942, and the Marine Corps Women's Reserve was created in 1943. Women served in a variety of assignments during World War II, including in communications, intelligence, supply, administration and medicine, with more than 60,000 Army and 14,000 Navy nurses having served stateside and overseas.
Nearly 100 of these nurses were captured by the Japanese and held as POWs. Minority women were limited in their chances to join the services, as most services placed initial limits and quotas on the number that could join. However, in time the quotas were eliminated and, for example, by the end of WWII, more than 500 black Army nurses served stateside and overseas during the war.
Since World War II, all minorities have made significant advancements in the military, especially blacks. That success is attributable to President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order that ended segregation in the military and the fact that the military environment provided and still provides the minority soldier, sailor, airman and Marine a unique opportunity to succeed and advance based upon merit and ability.
However, recent trends, as evidenced by a 2007 Washington Post article titled “Number of Blacks Joining Military Down” and a 2010 theroot.com article titled “Blacks Lose Ground in the U.S. Military,” show that strides made in yesteryears are declining and perhaps reversing. There are several causes for this trend, but one of the most concerning to me is an apathy among the current and rising generation for service to our nation and to others.
When I was 6 years old, my mother died in a fire in my home three days after Christmas. My three siblings and I escaped death because my father arrived home in time to get us out of the house. I idolized my father, not only because of his heroism that night, but because to me he was larger than life and a true hero. When I was nearly 14, Daddy’s health deteriorated and it continued to worsen until he was hospitalized for what turned out to be his final time.
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."