Is It Time For a Story About Race That’s Never Been Told?

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tags: racism, Black History, Black lives matter

Thomas Fleming is the author of many books about the American Revolution and other eras of our past. He was among the first to point out the forgotten role black soldiers and sailors played in the struggle for independence.


"Black Lives Matter protest" by The All-Nite Images - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

It was one of those moments you never forget. I had become friendly with The Reverend John Knoble, the Episcopal pastor of a local church in Westbrook, Connecticut, where I spend my summers. One day I happened to tell him that in 1945 I had been in one of the first integrated boot camp companies in the history of the U.S. Navy. I thought I was telling a cheerful story – about how black and white sailors amazed each other by getting along very well.

Father Knoble’s normally sanguine face darkened.  “My God,” he said. “I wish the American army had done something like that. I was an army chaplain. When the war with Japan ended, I was stationed on Okinawa, where we had an army of occupation. A hefty percentage of it was black. I was friendly with several of their chaplains. One day, four of them came to my room and told me a terrible story. I’ve never shared this with anyone – “

I did not have to encourage him to continue. He could see I was intensely interested.  “They told me, with awful grief in their voices, that the murder rate among the black soldiers on Okinawa was horrendous. Everyone had a gun and too many were quick to use it.  But the U.S Army refused to punish anyone for these crimes. They simply buried the dead and shipped the badly wounded back to America for treatment. The latest case was especially distressing.  One of their soldiers had killed a member of his company in broad daylight.”

Father Knoble gripped the arms of the chair in which he was sitting.   I sensed how difficult it was for him to continue.  “The black chaplains had asked the commanding general on Okinawa to hang the killer. It was their only hope of stopping more murders by him and those like him. But the general had ignored their letter. They asked me if I would write a letter, demanding that he act.”

For a moment I thought Father Knoble might weep.  He recovered his self-control and went on: “It was the most difficult moral and spiritual challenge I ever confronted. After two or three sleepless nights, I wrote the letter.  Within a week, the killer was arrested and court martialed. He was sentenced to death.”

 “Did it have any effect?”

 “I don’t know. A few weeks later, I was ordered back to America and discharged.  The wartime army was soon reduced to a shadow.”

He shook his head mournfully. “There are times when I wonder if I had done something terrible – something I could never be forgiven for.”

Father Knoble died some years ago. I have never discussed his story with anyone. It has returned to my memory as America wrestled with the challenges of the Black Lives Matter movement and their attacks on serious policing. They have begun smearing the reputation of policemen everywhere in the United States. In New York, they  staged a demonstration, denouncing the police  a day after a young black policeman, Randolph Holder,  had been murdered by a black criminal who had been freed by a lenient judge after committing a mind-numbing series of lesser but still serious crimes. The judge had the decency to express her regret over her decision. The Black Lives Matter people did not say a word to apologize for their unfeeling demonstration.

Some critics claim that President Barack Obama has joined this slanderous chorus, declaring he has youthful memories of the police harassing him. This claim is an exaggeration that distorts what the President has been saying to police officers and their organizations and to communities such as Camden, New Jersey, where black crime seemed hopelessly out of control only a few years ago.

In his October 27, 2015, speech to the International Organization of Police Chiefs in Chicago, the president told of being pulled over for reckless driving in his youth. Sometimes he knew he deserved it.  There were other times when he did not – and identified with blacks who were abused by policemen who were overzealous and rude. But Mr. Obama made a point of saying this was not true of the vast majority of law enforcement officers. He was well aware that slandering all policemen for the mistakes of the few would take us back to the days when the police did little to punish black violence. The spike in black-on-black crime in Baltimore, where the mayor forbade the police to exercise their normal discipline against protestors denouncing the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody, is a symptom of what can happen in other cities.

There are cities where this gun-driven, often drugs-fueled violence has been confronted with surprising success. In May of 2015, the president went to Camden New Jersey, which had one of the highest crime rates in America a few years ago. He congratulated the city and its police force for an amazing reduction in the crime rate thanks to the introduction of a new approach to inner city violence – community policing. This policy took policeman out of their patrol cars and urged them to make personal contacts with the people they were guarding.  Soon most of the Camden community saw policemen as friends rather than hostile enemies.         

My friend Father Knoble would be enthusiastically in favor of the innovations that President Obama and his administration have been urging all police forces to adopt – and backing the proposals with federal funds to train the police who accepted them. Disarming the police either literally or with careless criticism is not the answer to black on black violence. “I do not know anyone in the minority community that does not want strong, effective policing,” Mr. Obama said in Chicago.

 What is needed is a tremendous effort by all of us, blacks and whites, to confront this evil as something we can overcome as a community, a nation. Progress won’t be swift or easy, the President admitted, but it can be achieved, if enough young black men can be convinced that people care about them and want to help them achieve productive lives.

My people, the Irish Americans, had a similar problem in the 19th Century.  Millions of them poured into American cities, fleeing the famines that British indifference inflicted on Ireland. Almost all were illiterate and angry and they became a crime wave, making parts of cities unsafe, and crowding the courts and prisons.  Soon the police vans that transported captured felons to and from jail were being called “paddy wagons.” 

The Irish Catholic clergy, both priests and nuns, flung themselves into a gigantic effort to confront this epidemic of violence and corruption. They founded schools and parish churches that reached their people on a personal level. It took more than a half-century but slowly, painfully, the crime wave ebbed into decades of 20th Century achievement and accomplishment. The police, many of them Irish, played a crucial role in this story. Irish politicians added generations of caring about the pursuit of happiness among the people they were trying to help.

Black pastors and black politicians can do similar things for their people, today. White Americans will be eager to help them with money and moral support, as they begin to succeed. Government programs like those launched by President Obama’s administration will encourage their progress. Together we can change an American tragedy into an American triumph that my caring friend John Knoble would be eager to bless. 

President Obama ended his Chicago speech with a story that summed up his hopes for the future of community policing. He told of an Alabama officer, William Stacy, who arrested a black woman for shoplifting. She had stolen three eggs from a Dollar General Store. She told Stacy her children had had little or nothing to eat for several days. The officer went into the store to talk with the manager. When Stacy returned, he handed her a dozen eggs. The grateful woman later said that act of kindness had turned her life around.


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