The long, drawn-out fund-raising campaign to erect a proper memorial to Waco-reared, World War II hero Doris Miller has by now slipped into the realm of irony, not because of its own commendable reason for being but because of the ugly times it has spilled into. Today too many Americans feud over long-ago statues commemorating rebels fighting a scandalous and corrupt cause — and too few national and state leaders demonstrate the political courage to lead us out of our increasingly divisive times.
Happily, Waco has no public statues honoring the Confederate cause. In that sense, maybe we’re ahead of cities such as Austin and Dallas where fights over statues, school names and street signs percolate. Perhaps that’s why, a couple of weeks ago, so many of us of different political stripes and skin colors could rally for racial tolerance at First Presbyterian Church. One only wishes we could now take the declarations we heard that evening and implement them meaningfully into our hardball politics and daily way of life.
If Americans want to commemorate all-American heroism, we couldn’t do better than to erect a statue honoring Doris Miller. A muscular African American from a hardscrabble existence in the Waco area, he joined the Navy and wound up doing mess duty aboard the USS West Virginia, largely because blacks in the Navy weren’t allowed much more work than laundry and cooking.
Yet, in the panic and mayhem of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller not only saved men of other skin colors but manned an anti-aircraft gun to defend his ill-fated ship. Despite the racism he no doubt witnessed back home in Central Texas — living, for instance, in the shadow of our area’s earlier lynching culture, including the horrific public death of Jesse Washington in downtown Waco — he nonetheless took up arms against the enemy of his country.
It’s sometimes said that we as a society have lost sight of what heroism is. It’s not just the courage and sacrifice one shows for a cause but what that cause is and what it means for others. So long as World War II stands as a fight against oppression, tyranny and such horrors as ethnic cleansing and enslavement, one need not worry about its honorees ever falling into the furor that has enveloped the battlefield heroism that propped up the morally indefensible Confederate States of America.
Eight years have passed since a group led by Doreen Ravenscroft, executive director of Cultural Arts of Waco, valiantly mounted a campaign to erect a memorial paying tribute to Miller’s heroism. Let’s hope they are able to strategize and reorient their campaign in national outreach to complete this worthy effort. Meanwhile, the rest of us should recognize that public statues aren’t just history — they’re celebrations of and solemn tributes to not only men and women of considerable merit but causes that represent the very best of our ideals. Surely U.S. warriors of World War II rate such respect and awe, now and forever. They not only defended us on the home front but saved a world from madmen, anarchy and despotism. Tributes to them should speak to our own values.