In his typically thoughtful, insightful way, local philanthropist and former ambassador Lyndon Olson Jr. added to our understanding of Doris Miller during the unveiling of a statue honoring the hometown hero’s action under fire in the 1941 attack on the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Olson told of his widowed grandmother, Lillie McLaughlin, living on a Speegleville farm during the Great Depression and how Miller’s father, Conery, without being asked, showed up to help plant cotton for the devastated family. This story of kindness takes on special significance when one remembers racial tensions marking our area during much of the turbulent 20th century. The men who came to the house to help were black. The McLaughlin clan was white.
The story of Doris Miller’s bravery during the Japanese attack — pulling wounded men to safety and manning an anti-aircraft gun in a racially segregated U.S. Navy — has been retold sufficiently to need little elaboration here. Yet his statue and the rest of the Doris Miller Memorial, when erected, should do more than testify of his heroic deeds 76 years ago last Thursday. They should remind us not only of our shared values but also of challenges that require similar courage in fighting racism and condemning those among us who encourage or ignore it — a message as relevant now as then.
The statue in Bledsoe-Miller Park is well-placed (though it’ll be moved slightly when the memorial is finished). As Olson recalled in his address, late Mayor Mae Jackson, Waco’s first popularly elected black mayor, remarked on the barriers between largely black East Waco on one side of the river, the rest of the city on the other. “That river,” she said of the Brazos, “has been a divider.” And while the Waco Suspension Bridge is a powerful icon of unity for our city, those in the know can’t forget that Miller’s 9-foot-tall statue stands closer to the Washington Avenue Bridge where Sank Majors, an African American, was murdered by local whites in 1905, part of our area’s horrifying lynching heritage. It’s also near Martin Luther King Jr. Park, named for the slain civil rights leader.
The reader who complained because the Dec. 7 Trib “omitted any mention of Pearl Harbor” apparently refused to consider the 1,021-word story about Doris Miller. Indeed, Miller’s example speaks beyond wartime heroism (though Bettie Beard’s column offered a stirring account of his valor aboard the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attack, as well as noting his perishing with 701 mostly white shipmates aboard the USS Liscome Bay in the 1943 Battle of Makin). Certainly, the enormous potential of America could be sensed during the ceremony when mostly white former shipmates of the destroyer escort and frigate USS Miller, named for Miller more than 30 years after the Pearl Harbor attack and decommissioned in 1991, reverently took part in the bronze statue’s unveiling Thursday. And while an African-American couple pausing to admire the statue Friday assumed it was a likeness of Waco-born African-American singer Jules Bledsoe, famous for his 1927 rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” Miller’s muscular, reassuring presence along the Brazos reminds us of how far we’ve come in matters of race, even as disturbing new events remind us of how much further we must go.