Monday, November 11, 2019

"You Served Your Tour with Valor": Honoring Veterans of the African-American Struggle for Justice and Dignity

Today is the U.S. Veterans' Day holiday, and as tributes to this or that family member who has been in the military pop up in my social media feed, I'm thinking of a tribute my friend Wendell Griffen posted on his blog a number of days back to an Arkansas civil rights attorney and state representative, John W. Walker. John Walker died 28 October, and Wendell eulogized him at his funeral in Little Rock on 1 November.

Why am I thinking today of this tribute to a well-known (and much-castigated) local civil rights attorney and African-American leader? Because, as it seems to me, every African American living in the U.S. is a veteran in some way. The battles people of color face in the U.S. are manifold and endless, and it takes amazing courage to keep fighting them day after day, generation after generation.

As Wendell (who is himself a military veteran — and John Walker might well have been, too, though I don't know that) says in his tribute to his friend John, 

Over time, our professional friendship became a personal fellowship, and ultimately, a sense of comradeship. I thank God for my John Walker, my comrade. 
Several years ago, John and I made a pact that the "longest liver" would pay tribute to the first to pass on. He joked that we were the two most hated black men in Arkansas. What a compliment! John Walker claimed me as his comrade as target of their scorn and hatred. I will wear that title with honor for the rest of my days. ...
John Walker was hated – yes, hated – because he loved justice and wasn't afraid to fight for it. He was cursed, despised, and maligned because he fought bullies, protected vulnerable persons, and refused to suffer fools and hypocrites. Tyrants, bigots, white supremacists, and the people who front for them knew, hated, and feared this black man because he boldly stripped off their costumes of practiced hypocrisy and exposed their oppressive tyranny. 

What Wendell says here is plain truth. I know. I grew up in and live in Arkansas, and I've heard the calumny, the hateful words that pour all too easily from the lips of fellow citizens about both Wendell Griffen and John Walker, stalwart veterans of a lifelong struggle for justice. Just as I heard similar words pour from similar lips in the 1950s and 1960s regarding local civil rights stalwarts L. C. and Daisy Bates, who helped organize and protect African-American families who chose to send their children to our Central High School in 1957, when the governor shut the school down to prevent nine black teens from setting foot inside the school, precipitating a crisis in which the federal government had to send troops to compel our state to obey the law and to safeguard those nine young people.

Wendell concludes his eulogy:

I'll miss you. Yet I take comfort that you have joined the Hall of Fame that does not depend on nominations from Senators and Presidents. You have taken your place in the company of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Richard Allen, Nat Turner, Thurgood Marshall, Wiley Branton, L. C. and Daisy Bates, W. Harold Flowers, George Howard, Perlesta Hollingsworth, A. Leon Higginbotham, Elijah Cummings, Barbara Jordan, and John Conyers.  
You stood your watch. You served your tour with valor, and consummate courage and integrity. You are now relieved of duty to receive honors only God is fit to bestow on you. 

Veterans: every African American who has struggled to hold onto human dignity in a society intent on assaulting black human dignity on a daily basis seems to me to be a veteran of a battle that safeguards and moves along the project of American democracy for all of us — if the American democratic project is to have any meaning at all. And there are days lately when I suspect that like many of my fellow citizens, I'm near concluding that this project is over and done with, its eulogy ready to be written … because a significant proportion of  us could not live with the reality that an African-American man became our president, and have decided it's better to rip it all apart than to accept that reality.

I recently re-read James Baldwin's classic essay "Letter from a Region in My Mind," and thought to myself as I read it how prescient Baldwin's brilliant, incisive analysis of the underbelly of the American democratic experiment was, how pertinent it remains today — perhaps more than when he wrote it in 1962. More pertinent than ever in this age of MAGA. 

Baldwin concludes that essay,

And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time! 

And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped more than ever before, having been unwilling to learn fundamental lessons presented to us by the decades from 1960 to the present. Facing, it seems to many of us, not redemption but the fire next time. More than ever, if we hope to avoid that fire next time, we imperatively need, it seems to me, the testimony and gifts of veterans of the monumental struggle through which African-American citizens have to live simply because of who they are born to me: we need the testimony and gifts of Wendell Griffen and John W. Walker.

Later: A friend has pointed me to this excellent statement by Patrick D. Jones, Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, entitled "Expanding the Circle of Honor on Veterans Day," which makes an argument that meshes with mine above: he writes,

On this Veterans Day, I'd like to make a modest proposal that we expand the circle of honor in our society beyond military veterans to include veterans of the 1960s black freedom movement. As a scholar of the civil rights era, I have had the privilege to meet, hear, speak with and study hundreds of participants in the historic struggle for racial justice in the United States. In addition to their usual grace, dignity, patriotism and abiding commitment to our nation's most cherished ideals, I have been consistently struck by a more troubling undercurrent in their testimony: large numbers of them suffer from the same types of physical and mental trauma, as well as personal and economic challenge, that face many of our military veterans.

The photo of John W. Walker is from the website of his law firm.

No comments: