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Major Campaign: Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)
Japanese planes attack U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing more than 2,300 Americans. The following day, President Roosevelt declares war against Japan.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first individual act of heroism is accredited to African American, Navy Mess Attendant, Dorie Miller. Miller is stationed aboard the USS West Virginia when it is suddenly attacked by the first wave of Japanese Zeroes.
While under orders to help move his mortally wounded Captain, Miller notices an unmanned antiaircraft machine gun. Instinctively, he gets behind the 50-caliber gun, turns it skyward, fires repeatedly and downs two enemy planes. He continues firing until he is ordered to abandon the sinking ship.
This heroic act is particularly remarkable since Blacks are forbidden to hold combat positions and Miller has never handled a machine gun, much less trained on one.
In the subsequent award ceremony, fourteen Americans receive the military’s highest decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, but Dorie Miller is not among them. Instead he receives the less prestigious Navy Cross.
Dorie Miller dies two years later when his ship is hit by a Japanese submarine and sinks.
(excerpt from Minority Units of WWII)
Following the attack of Pearl Harbor, a wave of Anti-Japanese hysteria sweeps the west coast. Fears of sabotage and further invasion are fanned by the rabid Hearst Press, politicians, business protectionist groups and the military. The American people quickly begin to look for a scapegoat. At the urging of the War Department, President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal of all Japanese-Americans from the Pacific coast. In one broad stroke the civil liberties of over 100,000 American citizens are destroyed. Four days later, a Japanese submarine bombards, ineffectually, an oil field near Santa Barbara, California… a timely affirmation of existing fears.
All Japanese-Americans are told to wind up their business affairs in 7 to 10 days and to report to the newly established War Relocation authority. The evacuees have three choices: They can sell their property, store it or abandon it -but because of future uncertainly, many dispose of their property and businesses at a fraction of the value. They are permitted to take only what they can carry. They are taken on buses and trains to temporary quarters like Santa Anita Raceway in California until permanent quarters are completed. Army newsreels and propaganda films are slanted to mask the crude living conditions and to justify the mandated actions. Few spoke out.
Throughout the summer, the army moves over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens to ten hastily prepared internment camps in the harsh interiors of the country stretching from Death Valley, CA to Southern Arkansas. Life inside these camps is alien for people who only recently enjoyed complete freedom. Although they create a microcosm of the world they left behind, few ever get accustomed to living behind barbed wire and being watched by armed guards.
After V-J Day, Victory over Japan, the camps are quietly emptied one by one. Each family is given a meager stipend of $50 to return to their neighborhood. Although, many have nothing to return home to. Now, the ex-internees face another challenge…starting over. The Japanese-Americans, begin to rebuild their lives with typical grace and courage. Some might argue that it is difficult to avoid all inequalities in time of war, but the United States has little excuse for its treatment of citizens of Japanese ancestry. Forty years later, Congress formally acknowledges that the internment of Japanese-Americans was a mistake. (excerpt from Home Front USA)
Battle of Bruyeres (October, 1944)
The small village of Bruyeres is situated near the dark, gloomy, forest of the Vosges Mountains in France. To date, no known army has been able to penetrate this German stronghold.
When the Army announces that young Nisei can join their own regimental combat units, hundreds leave internment camps to enlist. Members of the new 442nd Japanese-American combat team are anxious to prove their loyalty to their country of birth and defy national prejudice that they are aliens and dangerous.
June 1944. The newly formed 442nd leave for combat duty in Europe. One month later, they arrive in Italy and join the 100th Infantry Battalion under the command of Gen. Mark Clark. The all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team go on to become the most decorated unit in US military history. They coin the motto “Go For Broke” and uphold these words throughout their service in WWII.
October, 1944, the combat team is sent to France. They become attached to the 36th Division commanded by Major General John Dahlquist. The commander is demanding, aggressive and viewed by the 442nd as biased against Japanese units.
The first objective for the 442nd is to liberate the town of Bruyeres where the once invincible German army now maintains a “do or die” stand. General Dahlquist informs his troops to expect little resistance. The 442nd enter battle ill prepared for what awaits them. They lose over 250 men.
When they finally liberate Bruyeres, the 36th Division takes all the credit.
(excerpt from Minority Units of WWII)
Since its inception, Black History Month has never been just a celebration of black America’s achievements and stories — it’s part of a deliberate political strategy to be recognized as equal citizens. Yet lost amid today’s facile depictions of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad or George Washington Carver’s peanuts is black America’s claim as co-authors of U.S. history, a petition the nation has never accepted.
This was the aim of Carter G. Woodson, a black historian and originator of Negro History Week in 1926. He believed that appreciating a people’s history was a prerequisite to equality. He wrote of the commemoration, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” That is, no amount of legislation can grant you equality if a nation doesn’t value you.
This is the story of black America — under appreciated and perpetually experiencing trickle-down citizenship wherein progress only reaches us if the nation’s cup runneth over.
There is no disputing that racial progress has occurred over the course of the nation’s history. And actions by the federal government are often cited as milestones of this evolution: the Emancipation Proclamation, constitutional amendments, Reconstruction Era edicts, Supreme Court cases and the Great Society legislation. Undoubtedly, if not for each of these, we never would have elected a black President or have more black members in Congress today than ever before.
But we must remember that Black History Month exists to deliver what federal policy has not — the eradication of systemic racism. Yes, policy is important, but the state of black America today proves it is wholly insufficient on this score. We have Brown v. Board, and yet the racial segregation of public schools remains the norm. We have the Fair Housing Act, and racial segregation in housing has barely changed in nearly four decades. We have the Fifteenth Amendment and a Supreme Court-weakened Voting Rights Act, and yet state laws still implement measures that disproportionately affect black voters. Black unemployment remains at twice the rate of white Americans. Black median wealth is nearly ten times less than white wealth. Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times that of their white countrymen. And black health continues to be worse on nearly every front — heart disease, asthma, infant mortality, diabetes — and the racial gap cancer deaths is widening.
These are not just problems of U.S. policy but of the American character. If we deemed this disparate black experience in America to be unacceptable, the country would have undertaken a massive federal program to address it specifically. But it has not, because black life is viewed as an expendable character in the American narrative.
Black History Month was aimed squarely at this harsh truth. It was crafted to compel recognition by a stubborn nation of the inimitable and invaluable role black people have played in the creation and sustainment of the United States. It is 28 days of political strategy to recast depictions of the nation’s black population as inherently and completely American. It is the reframing of the age-old rhetorical questions posed by Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I a woman?”) and abolitionists (“Am I not a man and a brother?”): Are we not Americans and citizens?
If we look at the challenges facing black Americans, the answer to that question is unsatisfactory. And deep down, the nation knows it. Though nearly three in four Americans agree that race relations are bad, we see the issue quite differently. Nearly five times as many white Americans as black ones say the U.S. has already made the changes necessary to give black people equal rights — while four times as many black Americans as white ones believe we will never make those fixes. And yet, six in ten Americans say that racism against black people is widespread.
It is much more comforting to believe that resolving the race issue is a simple matter of black people assuming more personal responsibility, combined with better policy. But good behavior has never released a people from oppression, not even the Founding Fathers. And without a change in how the nation views its black citizens, even good policy will be used as a cudgel. A magic pill to reduce health disparities would be rationed; a work program to reduce employment disparities would become a cash cow for those in power; and reparations would incite the most creative, exploitive financial vehicles the country has ever seen.
How do we know? Because we’ve seen the movie before. Housing bubbles and payday lenders come for black wealth first. Affirmative action has helped more white workers and students than black ones. White flight from schools and neighborhoods rose once federal desegregation statues were passed. And changes to state voting laws accelerated once a black President took office. Programs to help those who are not valued provide little value to those who need the programs most.
It’s not that policy doesn’t matter. As Martin Luther King said, “It may be true that law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me…” This is true, and yet Trayvon Martin is not here. James Byrd is not here. Eric Garner, Latasha Harlins, and George Floyd are not here. Policy is needed, but the politics of black history tell us that policy ain’t enough. Only recognizing and respecting the dignity and equality of black Americans can deliver the nation we all want, and Black History Month is a means to this end.
Don’t get me wrong: The accomplishments of black people in the United States merit special attention, particularly given slavery’s inhumanity and its vestiges that still shape the nation. And the sustained popularity of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a testament to the interest and curiosity about black culture that grips much of the nation. But these things exist so Americans will see the humanity in black people, not just so they can walk away with an interesting fact about the first black Senator or an entrepreneur who built a hair-care business empire.
Woodson believed that celebrating black history was a political act to “destroy the dividing prejudices of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank.” Not because learning about, say, a black inventor would inspire white magnanimity, but because failure to accept black people as fellow architects of the United States is an existential threat to the nation we call home. (Theodore Johnson)
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