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How Discrimination Against Black Veterans Helped Shape Urban America

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative reminds us how racial violence and exclusion paved the way for today’s polarized America.

Major L. Anderson, an original Tuskegee Airman, displays his Congressional Gold Medal in 2013. Black servicemen were often targets of discrimination and violence on their return home from wartime. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Alabama-based civil rights organization, reminds us that any progress toward racial equality in the U.S. is often short-lived, and few understand this better than black veterans. These were and are African Americans who laid their lives on the line to protect democracy and defend freedom. They expected the rewards of full inclusion, acceptance, and citizenship for their sacrifices, but instead came home to continued humiliation, discrimination, incarceration, and death. Black veterans were primary targets of racialized violence often because of their participation in the U.S. military: “It was risky for a black serviceman to wear his uniform, which many whites interpreted as an act of defiance,” reads the EJI report “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans.”

The document is an extension of the work EJI founder Bryan Stevenson has been doing to raise awareness about the role of racial terrorization in forming America’s social and geographic landscapes. Anti-black lynchings and mob violence were defining features of America’s development from the years immediately after Reconstruction began until well after the mid-20th century. The new report spells out through numerous accounts how black veterans caught the brunt of that, in part because of the animus white politicians and military officers bore toward black soldiers.

On August 16, 1917, Sen. James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, told the Senate on August 16, 1917, in his argument against African-American enlistment: “Impress the negro with the fact that he is defending the flag, inflate his untutored soul with military airs, teach him that it is his duty to keep the emblem of the Nation flying triumphantly in the air, [and] ...it is but a short step to the conclusion that his political rights must be respected.”

Such sentiments persisted after World War I, contributing to the climate that created the “Red Summer” of 1919, when white mobs rose up against black communities across 25 cities in almost every region of the U.S.; among the victims were 13 black veterans who were lynched. This was the kind of racial terror that drove African Americans by the millions into northern cities during the early 20th century. Instead of sanctuaries from the violence of the rural South, cities were places where African Americans first felt the fhwap of racism after returning from the battlefield. They arrived pre-branded as criminals by the white families who already lived there, which led to even more race riots, often with the police. The EJI report lists dozens of stories of black veterans who were beaten, mobbed, maimed, and lynched, often for little other reason than daring to walk on city sidewalks with their white neighbors.

Rather than continuing to duke it out with African Americans over space and proximity (or learning how to live together), white families simply decamped for the growing suburbs. Households with white war veterans were able to do this rather easily with the help of the G.I. Bill, which showered all kinds of federal grants, loans, and tax cuts to help their urban escapes. But, as the report details, African American veterans weren’t able to capitalize on any of these new programs:

Racial discrimination pervaded veterans’ programs, but the effects were particularly acute in the provision of home loans. Title III of the G.I. Bill made veterans eligible for low‐interest home loans with no down payment. Very few black veterans benefitted from Title III because, while the loans were guaranteed by the VA, they required cooperation from local banks. This meant that veterans first had to convince local banks to lend to them—which proved a daunting task for black veterans because the overwhelming majority of banks routinely denied loans to black applicants.

Home ownership was the primary driver for post‐war economic security and wealth accumulation, and it spurred the creation and growth of suburban white America. The G.I. Bill’s failure to provide similar uplift for black veterans and their families was evident from the start. A survey of 13 Mississippi cities found that African Americans received only 2 of the 3229 home, business, and farm loans administered by the VA in 1947. The Pittsburgh Courier charged that “the veterans’ program had completely failed veterans of minority races.” Once again, black people were excluded from the benefits of military service, and the hopes of black veterans and their communities were crushed by an unyielding racism that barred their entry into the middle class.

This has been a pretty consistent pattern after just about every American conflict, including those in Vietnam and Iraq: African Americans are allowed to take one step toward freedom, but then get knocked back at least two steps. It’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion when it comes to racial balancing acts.

“Despite the overwhelming injustice and horrific attacks black veterans suffered during the era of racial terror,” reads the report, “they remained determined to fight at home for what they had helped to achieve abroad.”

This is a fight that still continues today, which is why black vets are especially deserving of a salute this Veteran’s Day.

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