Navy stronger because of civil rights pioneers
This month is African-American History Month and this year is the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement. Every year I have been in the Navy I have watched this month go by with more or less indifference, but this year I feel differently for a couple of reasons.
First, I am now the proud father of a mixed-race son, and thinking about what he may have to confront because of the way he looks and the ways he is categorized as he grows up is a new concern in my life.
The second reason is a little more complicated. It has to do with my future in the Navy. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a sailor in the U.S. Navy, how proud I am of that fact, how much responsibility I feel, and what it is to be a leader both in this organization and in life.
Perhaps more than any other job, as members of the U.S. military we represent our country to the world. When we are abroad and people see us, they don’t say to themselves, “There goes another American,” they say, “There goes the United States.” Since the media tend to focus on the sensational, which usually means bad, a lot of us start to feel like the whole world hates us. But in reality, if you talk to people one on one, not only is that not the case, but you will find that, for most of the world, our country is still seen as a promised land, a place of limitless opportunity, unimaginable wealth and, most importantly, freedom.
Why do you think we enjoy this reputation? Not because we continue to segregate our races, deny women and people of color the vote, and incarcerate whole communities out of fear, greed and hate. No, it is because of the honor, courage and commitment of the thousands who took part in the civil rights movement that we can hold our heads high today and say we are proud to be American, a nationality that truly represents diversity and equality.
It’s worth it to take a moment and think about how amazing the civil rights movement really was. When we go out and represent, and fight for, the United States, part of what encourages us and gives us strength is knowing that we have the full support of our government and the American people.
So imagine what it took for those people, primarily African-American, in the 1960s, to walk out in the streets knowing that their government does not support them and most Americans either hate them or are completely indifferent (and who knows which of those feelings is worse). Men, women and children, radically outnumbered, and often poor, set out to break down a wall of ignorance, brutality and bigotry that had been established and reinforced for generations, and they did it knowing full well that they might be beaten, thrown in prison forever, and/or killed, with very little opportunity for justice. If this is not the ultimate example of honor, courage and commitment, I don’t know what is.
What’s more they went without weapons, armed only with intelligence, determination, passion and love.
One of the things that really impressed me with the Navy when I joined was how diverse it is. Look around and you will see people of just about every ethnic and racial background imaginable. It is a beautiful thing.
And yet, lest we think that we have arrived at the promised land already, I would challenge every one of you to open your eyes to the bigotry and inequality that is still rampant and can be confronted. As diverse as we are, our Navy can often end up a front line for the prejudices people bring with them from home. The transition from civilian to true blue sailor is not always as smooth as we could hope. The folks who put their lives on the line during the civil rights movement laid the foundation, but it is up to us to continue the fight.
Every one of us who values integrity, equality and moral strength, every one of us who likes to put on the uniform each day and think, “I represent progress, goodness and the power of positive change,” every one of us is indebted to those people who fought in the civil rights movement and made it possible for us to feel truly proud of representing the United States of America. With this in mind, I ask every active-duty servicemember who has let African-American History Month pass them by each year of their service without so much as a nod of respect to now take some time and think about how important it really is, to all of us, regardless of skin color.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Mehan is stationed at Camp Courtney, Okinawa.