How military service influenced the modern Civil Rights Movement

Roundup
tags: civil rights, segregation, WWII, Medgar Evers, Red Ball Express



T. Anthony Bell is on the staff of the Fort Lee Garrison Public Affairs Office.

FORT LEE — Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran who participated in the famed Red Ball Express logistical effort, marched head-first into the teeth of the civil rights struggle years later, muddying himself in the trenches of the movement's fight against segregation in Mississippi. Amid the commitment to the cause, he conceded danger was a lurking proposition.

"I'm looking to be shot any time I step out of my car ...," he said. "If I die, it will be in a good cause. I've been fighting for America just as much as the soldiers in Vietnam."

Hosea Williams, like Evers, also was a World War II veteran. Having survived a Nazi bombing in Europe under the command of Gen. George Patton, Williams had teetered on the steps of death after being hospitalized for nearly a year as a result of the attack. He was reacquainted with the pain of his experience and introduced to the companions of rebuke and humiliation – after he was beaten by whites "like a common dog" upon his return home for using a whites-only water fountain, he said.

"At that moment, I truly felt as if I had fought on the wrong side," Williams said later, noting his U.S. Army uniform worn at the time did not deter his attackers. "Then, and not until then, did I realize why God, time after time, had taken me to death's door, then spared my life ... to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity."

The experiences of civil rights icons like Evers and Williams and a long list of others formed a collective narrative of those who served in the U.S. military during World War II and the Korean War and returned to their communities with newfound hope and aspiration to improve their lot in American society through various efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.

From the perspective of retired Army Lt. Col. John Boyd, black war veterans were critical to the fight for civil rights.

"They had a great impact on the movement," said the Mechanicsville resident and veteran of the Vietnam War. "I would go as far to say if it wasn't for the black soldiers who came back from World War II and the Korean War and lent their expertise to the cause, Dr. King and the other ministers would not have been able to effectively organize (the masses) as they did."

Civil rights for African Americans, or the "human rights and personal dignity" Williams referred to, have been elusive commodities for the better part of their existence. WWII, like all wars before it (and many since), was yet another opportunity to validate their place as American citizens and claim the rights and privileges they were persistently denied. Retired Col. Porcher "PT" Taylor, a combat veteran of WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars, said risking life and limb for one's country makes a powerful argument for reciprocation.

"When you go out there on the battlefield and you're fighting for your life and the lives of the people you're serving with, it's a big difference compared to the ordinary citizen who did not serve," said the 91-year-old Petersburg resident. "The country is then indebted to that person. It's an obligation."

African-American men and women who served during WWII and the Korean War numbered more than a million-and-a-half, despite enduring racism and discrimination on the homefront and within the ranks. In addition to heightened expectations because of their battlefield sacrifices, many returned with unique perspectives about life and liberty, especially since many had been exposed to Europe and its more tolerant racial climates. Black military members also gained communication, organizational and leadership skills they might have never acquired as civilians, said Taylor. ...




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