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We have better examples for naming military bases

June 29, 2020

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin told his fellow revolutionaries, “We must hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

His meaning was obvious: Their bid for independence was, to King George III, an act of treason.

A victorious England would never allow them to return peacefully to their former lives. Signing the declaration meant signing their own death warrant.

Any notion that they would be honored later by England would have been too ludicrous to consider.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to 10 confederate generals after the Civil War. Having levied war against the United States -  the Constitution’s definition of treason - these traitors received the honor of having American military bases named after them. It was an idea whose time should never have come.

David Petraeus, retired Army general and former CIA director, recently wrote in the Atlantic magazine that it’s time to change the names of these forts.

Which raises a question: Who should be honored?

The work of Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Cape Henlopen High School, provides one answer. In 2016, Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., published a report titled “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans.”

The report tells the harrowing tales of back veterans who were attacked, even murdered, because they were black veterans.

In one example, a mob in post-Civil War Kentucky attacked “a United States Colored Troops veteran. The mob stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and then cut off his sexual organs. He was then forced to run half a mile to a bridge outside of town, where he was shot and killed.”

Despite this and similar incidents, blacks still believed, 50 years later, that military service provided a path to full acceptance in American society.

During World War I, some 380,000 blacks served with the American forces. They were following the advice of NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois, who said black Americans should “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and allied nations that are fighting for democracy.”

Du Bois’ call was as noble as it was misguided. Black soldiers who heeded his call won neither glory nor respect. Instead, they were resented, whites fearing a man who had risked his life for his country wouldn’t stand being

treated as a second-class citizen.

That included Henry Johnson, a World War I soldier who received the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest award for valor.

Johnson fought off an attack of 24 Germans almost singlehandedly. After being shot several times and his gun jamming, he continued fighting with the butt of his rifle. The Germans finally retreated, according to an EJI report, leaving behind four dead and a dozen wounded. The story made front pages across the country.

But the acclaim he received in France quickly faded in America. Disabled by the war, he found himself fighting another battle on the homefront - this time to receive the medical assistance and benefits due him as a wounded veteran.

When he complained publicly about the mistreatment of black veterans, according to the report, “he was discharged with no disability pay.” He died, broke, in 1929.

Johnson has received various medals since his death, but the announcements are made and quickly forgotten. Naming a fort in his honor would be a more lasting and fitting reminder of this hero and the injustices he endured.

Don Flood
Lewes
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