This column is being written on Flag Day, June 14, the occasion to commemorate the date, in 1777, when the Continental Congress officially adopted a banner with seven horizontal stripes of red and six of white alternating from bottom to top and a square of blue featuring white stars in the upper left hand corner as the flag of the newly forming United States of America.
The banner was adopted as We the People, were rising up in revolution, risking lives, to secure human rights.
Nearly 30,000 colonists were counted as casualties in the fight to gain these rights. One such patriot was a young African American rope manufacturer named Crispus Attucks. He is generally remembered as the first colonist to die in the Revolutionary War, having been shot to death by the British Army in the opening salvo of the Boston Massacre.
Throughout our history, Black Americans have played central roles in the nation’s conflicts and fights for freedom.
In the American Civil War, 360,000 Union soldiers and sailors, including 30,000 African Americans in the Navy and United States Colored Troops, died in an effort to uphold the principles and promises of the revolution. Eight months after the last blood was shed, slavery was abolished in the U.S. with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment did not, however, prevent states from requiring Black people to pay poll taxes or pass a test before they would be permitted to cast a ballot.
The next year, the 10th Cavalry of the United States Army was organized, along with five other all Black units, and they were sent to the Great Plains and western states. These regiments, and their descendants, became known as the Buffalo Soldiers and continued to fight carrying the red, white and blue, through the Spanish-American War when they charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt.
At the turn of the century, Iowa became the epicenter of African American military service, when Fort Des Moines was designated as the primary training ground for Black soldiers, and in 1917, was home to the first African American Officers’ School.
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Those officers and soldiers were organized into the 92nd Division, assigned to combat duty, and were among the 25,000 soldiers who died in the infamous Battle of the Meuse and Argonne in France.
When the remaining troops returned to the United States, the Constitution would soon allow women to vote, but in many places, Blacks were still subjected to voter suppression and intimidation tactics. Giving up on the South, in a trek known as The Great Migration, an estimated one and a half million grandsons and granddaughters of former slaves, moved north to Chicago and other major cities across the country.
Near Chicago was Chanute Army Air Base, where the first Black officers of the United States Army Air Corps graduated and were directed to Moton Field, Alabama, to join pilots training to fly fighter planes in the Second World War. Robert Williams of Ottumwa, Luther Smith of Des Moines, and Bob Martin of Dubuque were among them.
The Tuskegee Airmen, as the fighter intercept unit became known, escorted bombers over the most heavily defended sectors of Germany, Italy, and Africa, shooting down enemy planes in vicious dogfights, earning the title from grateful bomber crews as “The Red Tailed Angels.”
A total of 1.2 million African Americans would ultimately serve in the Army, Navy or on the homefront, during World War II.
Three years after the signing of surrender formally ending the conflict, the armed forces were officially integrated when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981. Two years following it, North Korea invaded South Korea and America was back at war.
With an opportunity to show that all peoples of all colors were equally willing to fight, Army personnel authorized the 2nd Army Rangers to be the first all African American Ranger unit.
The unit was sent into combat in the winter of 1951 and lost a third of its number to the enemy and below-zero weather conditions. Of the 104,000 Americans wounded in four years of combat, 40,000 would die.
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America fared little better in Vietnam. Two and a half million personnel were assigned to Vietnam over a period of nine years from 1964 to 1973. Fifty thousand of this number would be fatalities. In that time, 19 African Americans would earn the Medal of Honor, the highest award our nation can bestow upon our military heroes.
On the homefront, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, formally banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender. The war at home against discrimination, though, had not ended, with marches throughout the country attempting to change local laws in cities and rural communities from South to North.
Ever since 1777, through wars and conflict overseas and at home, the flag with the red and white stripes and blue field of stars has been a symbol of the freedom to which all people are entitled and an extension of the U.S. Constitution, the very document that grants us, among those freedoms, the right to speak out and demonstrate peacefully against our government.
Every citizen has the right to do that, and, under the liberties granted by it, the freedom of expression to desecrate the same flag that embodies this precious document.
It is indeed your right, if you choose to do so, but before you do, think of the numbers of Americans, including millions of minority soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who took their last breath protecting that right.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.