The story of African American men and women serving in the U.S. military is one of lament and hope. African Americans began serving in the military with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans and have continued until today. In every war and conflict fought by or within the United States, African Americans have participated — whether enslaved or free. Before the American Revolution, African Americans such as Crispus Attucks from Boston protested the British curbing of civil liberties. Attucks and several others were shot and killed. Many consider Attucks the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. Sadly, however, freedom and equitable benefits for Attucks, the descendants of Attucks and other African Americans who fought was a distant possibility whether enslaved or free.
The Confederacy did not allow African Americas to fight in their military but there were African Americans who served as personal attendants to white persons in the military. The Civil War was a particularly important war in which African Americans served. It was a fight for their freedom and another significant opportunity for the U.S. to live into the moral principles and values of human dignity articulated in the Constitution. Although African Americans were reputable soldiers, there was discrimination in pay and other areas of service. In addition, the “colored units” were often disproportionately assigned labor work, rather than front-line combat assignments.
By the time of World War II, there was a significant number of African Americans serving in the military, but racial structures and practices persisted. The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper advocated for a resolve of the situation this way:
“We call upon the president and congress to declare war on Japan and racial prejudice in our country. Certainly we should be strong enough to whip them both.”
This month, Bread for the World’s Pan African Quad-Centennial devotional guide Lament and Hope points to the G.I. Bill, formally known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. This bill provided military veterans returning from World War II with many benefits, including low-cost mortgages, high school or vocational education, college tuition and living expenses, unemployment insurance, and low-interest loans to start businesses. It is credited with creating the American middle class by opening up home ownership and higher education to millions of veterans. Sadly, however, African American veterans were denied many of the benefits because the legislation failed to address existing discriminatory laws and policies.
The author of the August devotional, the Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson, states the following with a recommendation for all of us:
“The inequitable distribution of government resources for African-descended people who served in the military and their families was a social ill that hindered the structural and social development of the United States.”
May we continue to advocate for policies that fight for justice for all so that all may be fed.
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox church engagement at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.