COLUMBUS, Ga. — African-American soldiers fought valiantly throughout American history, even when they faced racism and discrimination from the country they served, a Fort Benning official said Thursday.
Sgt. Maj. Michael D. Green, top noncommissioned officer for the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, said it took brave men and women to knock down the barriers that those soldiers faced, paving the way for an integrated nation.
Green made his comments at a Fort Benning observance of Black History Month, which drew about 200 soldiers to the Derby Auditorium in McGinnis-Wickam Hall. He addressed the theme, “Civil Rights in America,” highlighting the legacy of African-American heroes who experienced hardships and triumphs.
“It’s a legacy of people who understood what it is to have to fight for what you believe in,” he said. “It’s important to remember and pay respect to this legacy because it’s built on a foundation of a people so strong that no matter the odds they would not be defeated.”
Green said many people are familiar with stories about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers. However, there were many other African-Americans who were just as heroic. He mentioned as examples the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose deeds in the Civil War were immortalized in the movie “Glory”; the Hell Fighters of Harlem, who fought with the French in the muddy trenches of World War I and The Triple Nickels of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which was an all-black airborne army unit during World War II.
Green said the military, like other segments of society, discriminated against black soldiers. But the soldiers demanded equal treatment, and military leaders began to value their service.
“By July 1953, five years after President Truman officially ended segregation in the military, 98 percent of the armed forces were integrated,” he said. “These changes came at a time of great upheaval. One Year before, Brown vs. the Board of Education dismantled the segregation of public schools, and 12 years before legislation would be passed to protect African-Americans right to vote.”
Green, a native of Oakland, Calif., joined the army in 1992 and is a veteran of seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star with four oak leaf clusters, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with V device, Army Achievement Medal with four oak leaf clusters, six Good Conduct Medals, two National Defense Service Medals and the Afghan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star.
Prior to his speech, a group called Dance for a Cause Ministries danced to the old Negro spiritual “Lord, If I Got My Ticket Can I Ride?”
Sgt. Jasmine Stanley, of the 209th Military Police Detachment, told the audience about the background of the national black history observance, which started in 1926 as the brainchild of the famous black historian, Carter G. Woodson.
It began as a week-long celebration to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, and was later extended to include the whole month of February. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, and every U.S. President since has followed.
Green said America has made great progress in the area of civil rights, but there's more to be done.
“Throughout the world, and even here in the United States, there are people who suffer from injustice, poverty, discrimination and oppression," he said. “There are still changes to be made and battles to be fought. Only when each individual person makes a commitment to stand for what is right can people come together for positive change.”