Today, there will be salutes, but no apologies. There will be parades and poems, but no public markers. There will be marches, but none for civil rights. There will be millions spent on films, and documentaries, but none toward reparations. There will be thousands of ceremonies — some solemn, some joyous — to offer respect to military veterans who have served our country abroad, but no corrective justice for black veterans who returned to be shot, lynched and killed on American soil. So what, to the black American, is Veterans Day?
Certainly Frederick Douglass, who once expressed his disdain for the Fourth of July, would have an array of thoughts. At the very least, he would utter again, this holiday is “yours, not mine.” Perhaps he would verbally joust with Rush Limbaugh, sewing together the unjust experiences of black veterans and the new fabric experienced by black activists today. Imagine a young Douglass tweeting, “#BlackLivesMatter” trailed by images of black veterans who were murdered on their homeland.
Imagine Timothy Hood, a Marine veteran who was killed by a police officer in Alabama in 1946. He had boarded a crowded bus in Brighton near Birmingham when the Negro section had filled to standing room only. Frustrated that a seat was available in the white section, Hood emboldened his fellow black passengers to sit down. The driver then stopped the bus and ordered him to get off. Rather than use the rear door, Hood walked defiantly toward the front of the bus, and through the white section. Refusing to accept disobedience, the driver brandished a gun and fired five bullets at Hood, striking him three times in the hip. He stumbled down the street to receive medical attention, but the police discovered and arrested him. Hood was handcuffed and placed face down on the floor of the police car, without medical treatment. The Brighton chief of police then arrived to finish him off and shot Hood in the back of the head.
The traumatic stories of black veterans are endless, especially in Alabama. In Montgomery, for example, Hilliard Brooks was shot after boarding a downtown bus in 1950. Brooks, a Navy man, knew black passengers were not allowed to walk through the white section in front of the bus, and were supposed to pay their fares and then re-enter through the rear. But on this particular day, he was out of patience with segregation and walked through the front of the bus. Moments later, a police officer approached and shot him.
In another example, Elijah Lockwood was shot by a fellow white veteran in Selma in 1946. Lockwood, having returned home from the Army, was sitting on a friend’s porch when the white veteran chastised him for pursuing work outside cotton farming. When Lockwood told him that he refused to accept such work, the man pulled out his rifle and shot at him. Lockwood then returned fire with his own pistol. Although he was acting in self-defense, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for attempted murder.
I was ignorant of the extent of violence committed against black veterans until this past year when Professor Margaret Burnham — an Alabama native and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University School of Law — taught me this history through intense reading and research. As a law student in her clinic, she handed my colleagues and me a docket of cold cases — crimes that had not yet been solved and were not the subject of any recent criminal investigation — where she believed new information could emerge from archival search.
In several of the cases we discovered that the victims were veterans who returned to America, optimistic that their unselfish sacrifice defending their country would yield equal rights at home. Unfortunately, this optimism soon turned to despair as black veterans like Hood, Brooks, and Lockwood were not only met with violence, but also deprived of the federal government’s benefits bestowed on white veterans.
Consider the G.I. Bill, a remarkable piece of legislation in 1944, which helped millions of returning veterans go to college and buy homes in the great postwar suburban land rush. They were able to use the government guaranteed housing loans to buy homes in the rapidly growing suburbs. Additionally, they would receive paid tuition for college and graduate school.
Conversely, black veterans were largely excluded from using the provisions of the bill. Banks generally wouldn’t make loans for mortgages in black neighborhoods, and black veterans were excluded from the suburbs through a combination of racially driven covenants, deeds, and violence. Additionally, thousands of black veterans were prohibited from pursuing education because segregated schooling was still the law of the land. Further, the few universities that accepted black students had strict quotas, and historically black colleges were simply too small to accommodate tens of thousands of new students. In the final analysis, nearly 100,000 black veterans were eligible for educational funding, but only 20 thousand were able to enroll. Further, of the nearly 67 thousand veterans who were provided home mortgage loans provided to veterans, less than 100 went to black veterans.
Indeed, there has been a tale of two veterans—one received a free college education, bought a home that rose greatly in value, and paid for his or her children to attend college; the other was denied access to college, paid rent to owners, accumulated no assets, and struggled to send children to college. One veteran was murdered; the other lived to raise children. One veteran’s family experienced a long-term boom in wealth; the other still lives with the effects of that exclusion today, and will for a long time to come. These tales persisted throughout the Korean War, when segregation was still the law of the land and discrimination abounded, and during the Vietnam War, when the vestiges of segregation still remained.
And so, today, amidst the celebrations, many black Americans will reflect. We will reflect on our ancestors who battled abroad, but were butchered at home. We will reflect on the widening gap in racial gap in wealth and inter-generational mobility today. We will reflect on absent apologies, public markers and reparations. But more importantly, we will continue to organize, not only for ourselves, but for the lost, forgotten and ignored.