For many years, I was mildly conflicted over a full month being devoted to black history, given that so many Americans are increasingly ignorant of our nation’s complicated history in toto or have seriously flawed ideas of how our laws and rights evolved and what sacrifices were made to secure those laws and rights. In the past several years, however, I’ve begun to conclude Black History Month is absolutely essential — but only so long as we’re studying, debating and talking about the right things, including history as it feeds into and influences current events.
Credit this gradual shift in attitude to disturbing episodes such as the deadly 2017 clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and those who imagined themselves morally and patriotically charged with defending rights won over some two centuries, many won in the last 65 years. Certainly our city has a part in this history. While Waco doesn’t have controversial memorials celebrating dead Confederate heroes, we’re certainly on the road to racial epiphany, if only for the horrific lynching of Jesse Washington 103 years ago. Postcards enshrining the event were produced. Souvenirs of the black victim’s body parts were distributed as souvenirs after he was burned in our town square.
History isn’t easy. Last December, in editorializing on the dedication of the riverfront memorial honoring Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller, I fleetingly reminded readers of the racism Miller faced in the Waco area (where he worked in cotton fields and bused tables in town) and in the military. He grew up when memories of the Washington lynching (and that of Sank Majors) remained vivid; he joined a Navy where racial segregation relegated the strapping A.J. Moore High School athlete to lowly mess duties rather than higher service for his country; and he proved an innocent thorn in the Navy’s side after manning an anti-aircraft gun to defend shipmates from Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Navy officials sought to keep his identity from the public and fought off calls to honor his courage with a Medal of Honor. (Miller, however, was awarded the Navy Cross for “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor” — and his example arguably contributed to thoughts of change in his fellow Texan, Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz, who presided over the ceremony.)
I was astonished when a reader protested the Trib editorial: “Never underestimate the proclivity of the editors to use any event, no matter how noble and timeless, for the petty politics of our time. Editors, in your haste to bash Trump and to narrowly view the ceremony through only the lens of identity politics, you missed the real story. You missed a packed house of Wacoans celebrating and honoring the life and deeds of a hometown hero. Those who were there know — this is what community looks like. I am proud to be from the same town as Doris Miller. I am proud to have this memorial of him in our community. I am hopeful this speaks to what ‘our times’ are really about — not about what separates us but what brings us together.”
The letter strikes a noble chord. Yet it also highlights a problem we have in history and daily journalism: Much of our public wants its stories told in tidy, satisfying, easily digested segments, complete with red bows. We want the Doris Miller saga told without racism too inconveniently stressed. We need it to fit neatly alongside the stubborn myth that Southern states seceded over states’ rights, not to preserve the horrid institution of slavery; we need it to fit snugly alongside the notion that memorials to Confederate soldiers and statesmen are “history,” not monuments glorifying the Lost Cause myth and bolstering oppressive Jim Crow laws passed long after the Civil War claimed its last battlefield casualty; we might even need to enlist onetime A.J. Moore fullback Doris “Power” Miller to prop up an idea encouraged by the president of the United States that African-American pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s protests seek to dishonor our military personnel, flag and national identity, not that these latter-day protests, wise or not, seek to highlight police brutality visited upon African-American communities — a problem many don’t want to acknowledge, let alone address.
Journalism is like that. All too often, someone will ask a question about the backstory behind some local or state news event heating up public sensibilities. When I agree to discuss such matters anymore — more and more I decline off the clock — I find myself trying to highlight the various layers, conflicting nuances and unanswered questions behind the story. And I can see many of those who asked squirming uncomfortably, clearly sorry they asked because they have neither the time nor intellectual willingness to readjust the perceptions, paradigms and prejudices they carry within. Which is to say Black History Month is irrelevant unless those nuances, layers and questions are comprehensively addressed.
I thought back on that disgruntled reader at last week’s Baylor University lecture by Dr. T. Michael Parrish, Linden G. Bowers Professor of American History in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, on the book he co-authored with fellow historian Thomas W. Cutrer about Miller’s role as a catalyst in our nation’s civil rights movement. “Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement” offers plenty that is possibly inappropriate at a dedication ceremony. Yet the triumphs Miller experienced personally as an African-American wartime hero and the significant strides to which he unwittingly contributed in the broader context of civil rights make his story even more compelling, especially when told warts and all.
And, yes, all that is relevant today as political leaders overtly or not unleash racist impulses long suppressed by societal standards or simply discouraged by mere political correctness. (Ah, blast that infernal political correctness for keeping racism at bay!) In his lecture, Parrish described how segregation in other branches of the armed forces often resulted in segregated units; Navy segregation, because of logistics, segregated races by confining blacks (and Filipinos) to menial duties.
Those attending the lecture seemed astonished that President Roosevelt’s secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, strenuously opposed any credit or honor being given to Miller after the latter’s selfless heroics at Pearl Harbor, including pulling white servicemen from harm’s way. The conclusion in the hall seemed to be that Knox must be a Southerner. Actually, Boston-born Knox was a Republican newspaper publisher from Michigan.
“Frank Knox was adamantly opposed to desegregating the Navy and allowing African Americans to achieve higher service and distinction,” Parrish said. “He would have been perfectly happy to allow Doris Miller’s name to remain unknown. He had to respond ultimately to the pressure of the White House to release Doris Miller’s name [to the public]. That’s just the way things were in the Navy back then. If the problem had gone away, he would have been perfectly happy. Some historians take the cynical view that the military desegregated because of practical considerations, that it needed men to fight. But the military not only needed men, it needed men who were effective.”
Identification of Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller as the black serviceman who demonstrated heroics under fire aboard the USS West Virginia furnished not only the first black hero of World War II — one likened to Crispus Attucks from the Boston massacre — but spurred “pressure applied by the African-American press, Congress and finally the White House for the military to fully and eventually desegregate and to allow for integrated units that [one day] included African Americans who were the giving orders, who were officers and superior [in rank] to white servicemen. Without the pressure beginning with African Americans themselves, the process would have looked very different.”
At one point during the lecture, Helen Marie Taylor, founder of the Taylor Museum of Waco History, cited long-ago recollections by others concerning Miller’s fears that white resentment over his officially declared heroism threatened him more than their shared enemy, which Taylor called a “sad, sad commentary.” Miller ultimately perished with many of his shipmates after a torpedo sank the escort carrier Liscome Bay in the Gilbert Islands on Nov. 24, 1943. His parents, Conery and Henrietta Miller, back in Waco, were informed their son was missing in action on Dec. 7, 1943 — two years to the day since the attack that catapulted Doris to fame.
Parrish tells me the book he and Cutrer undertook proved a revelatory journey into civil rights as much as separating fact from fiction concerning Miller (including how many Japanese aircraft he downed at Pearl Harbor — zero):
“The biggest misperception is the lack of awareness that he had on the civil rights movement. That was something of which my co-author and I were vaguely aware. I mean, he’s been commemorated so much with his name put on schools and hospitals and even a Navy ship and his own postage stamp. He’s an icon, there’s no doubt about it, in civil rights. He’s in all the history books — certainly all the African-American history books — and he’s known from many of the movies about Pearl Harbor depicting his heroism. But we had no idea how important he was to the ongoing momentum of the civil rights movement, influencing desegregation of the Navy and finally desegregation of all the armed forces.”
Society began catching up to the U.S. military’s example in subsequent decades.
Some debate continues over whether Waco would be wise to erect a marker acknowledging the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, especially when our town seems on an economic upswing fueled by favorable impressions of tourists charmed by HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” series and visiting Magnolia Market at the Silos, our zoo and other attractions. These have put in the rear-view mirror such history as the deadly Branch Davidian siege — yet another event widely misunderstood, thanks to politicians, popular culture and plain ignorance. In the meantime, the Doris Miller Memorial on the banks of the Brazos beckons us to know more about our history, not all of it pleasant but much of it instructive.
And, yes, the story of Doris Miller should speak to us at a time when racism is once again at the forefront of American life. This month alone — Black History Month — we’ve seen a small-town Alabama newspaper editor call for “the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again” to clean up Washington, D.C., from “Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats” — and, yes, he’s confirmed he’s referring to lynching. We’ve seen this month a prominent African-American actor charged with staging an attack on himself to take advantage “of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” at least as the Chicago police see it — an allegation that has outraged African Americans as well as whites. And we’ve seen this month the arrest of a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist who reportedly consulted “pro-Russian, neo-fascist and neo-Nazi literature” and targeted for assassination such figures as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and others believed to be hindering white supremacy in America. This was someone many of us might ordinarily have stopped on the street and thanked for his military service.
And, finally, last week the Southern Poverty Law Center reported the number of hate groups across America emboldened by political leadership “giving sanction to hateful views among millions” has increased some 30 percent over the past four years, primarily among neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and white nationalists. This in turn has generated fervor among black nationalists who, the law center reports, “believe the answer to white racism is to form separate institutions — or even a separate nation — for black people.” Ironically, the Ku Klux Klan is losing in numbers, the report said, because of its “antiquated traditions, odd dress and lack of digital savvy.”
Doris Miller, war hero? You bet. But the context of his times and sober recognition of our own remind us that racism, America’s original sin, is never truly extinguished, only held in check in the best of times by the best of people, whatever their color. That must always figure prominently in the mission of Black History Month — and in all who dare apply scrutiny to American history.