From Bunker Hill to Basra:
Quest For Black Citizenship In The Americas
Thank you for that kind introduction. I’m honored beyond words that you have invited me here today to help commemorate Black History Month. I’m also honored that a kid from a small farm in East Texas has been given the opportunity to do the things I’ve done, and to help open some doors for others who needed a little nudge. Actually, “given the opportunity” is not exactly how it happened. I took the opportunities, but that’s just my nature.
Many of us are basking in the early days of the new Obama administration. I know, and the President surely knows, that we should all enjoy the honeymoon as long as we can, because there are some truly horrendous problems facing us every day. You have only to read the papers or listen to one national newscast per day to have some idea what he’s facing. I know that he knows it. Remember the words of his inaugural address; “Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. Believe me, the storm clouds are there.
I hope, though, that we haven’t fallen victim to false hope; the hope that Barack Obama has come to save us all. Because as much as he can do, it is we, as American citizens, who must do; we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get on with business. Have you heard those words recently?
Notice how easily I threw out that term “American Citizen?” We all do it, but I think we don’t always realize what a gift this is. You’ve seen the pictures of hundreds of new immigrants being sworn in to assume their new American citizenship. You’ve see those who plowed through the mine fields, and the barbed wire, and the concrete walls — making their way to America in their quest for “citizenship.”
Yet, most of us in this room simply assumed “citizenship” on the day we were born, simply because we were born. The Constitution gives us that gift, but because it is so easily given, we may not attach much value to it. It’s good that we slow down occasionally to see how the rest of the world views this gift of American citizenship.
This gift of citizenship hasn’t always been so freely given, as you’ll hear in a moment. Believe it or not, for hundreds of years, many people born in America were NOT American citizens. It was the law of the land, and it took many generations to overcome. Many Americans died while fighting for the simple label that most of us now enjoy on the first day we were born. If there’s one thing you might take away from today’s observance, please remember that while you were blessed with this American citizenship, its value is incalculable.
It’s not a gift you can hoard. Ignore it, and you’ve lost it. Let it get stale, and you’ve lost it. Fight for it, protect it, defend it, and uphold your responsibilities to it, and your citizenship – and mine – will flourish, and will continue to be a rare beacon for the rest of the world.
I’d like to share briefly with you a few stories about men for whom citizenship did not come easy.
If you’ve seen my biography, you know that although I’ve served as an Ambassador and a Charge d’affaires with the State Department, I’m really still wearing Army green. For most of my adult life – certainly for that part when others were hurling bullets at me – I’ve thought of myself as a soldier. And as my staff will tell you, I am not bashful about skewering bureaucrats when it’s called for. I’m not talking about “civilians,” because there are plenty of bureaucrats who wear Army green, or the uniform of the other services. I’m talking about people who have lost sight of their mission, and who pay attention to bone-headed rules when they should be focusing on doing the right thing for those they serve.
In my current leadership role as the head of the Department of Defense POW/MIA mission, I am honored almost every day to see the closure that comes to the families of the missing, when we’re able to bring their loved ones home again. I’m talking about all conflicts here…the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Cold War and World War II. Scattered in units around the world are some 600 of our specialists ranging from policy officers, to linguists, to odontologists, to DNA specialists, to forensic anthropologists. I take great pride in telling audiences that these professionals are the best in the world at what they do. As supporters of our fighting forces in foreign lands, you can certainly take comfort in knowing that it our intent to keep the promise – spoken or unspoken – to bring them all home.
As I tell gatherings of our MIA families, when I look out across the audience, I don’t see conflicts. I don’t see Vietnam War, Korean War, Cold War and World War II. I see families who want answers, and it’s my job to ensure we get them the answers they deserve. After all, they gave the nation their most precious possession, their sons and daughters.
Likewise, when I look at individuals or groups of servicemen, I don’t see Caucasians, or African Americans, or Asian Pacific Islanders and so on. I see GIs. If I’m crouched behind a rock wall, or in a foxhole, I’m looking at the guy who might well save my life, and he’s thinking the same thing. Not for one second and I concerned about his ethnicity, nor is he concerned about mine. There are far more important issues at that moment in combat, the first being, “Am I going to die? And, “Is this guy going to help save me?” That’s it. Nothing else. Save my skin and who cares about anything else!
Again, if I may, I’d like to quote our President from his inaugural address: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, the noble idea, passed from generation to generation; the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted.”
Today as we look at the quest for citizenship during Black History observances, I think it’s good that we learn all we can from those who preceded us. Do you know what today is? Do you know what happened in Hardin County, Kentucky, exactly 200 years ago today? Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, was born. Do you think he was totally committed to emancipation? Well, not exactly. He was, after all, a person of his era. But, we continue to learn new things every year about Abraham Lincoln, and one thing I recently learned is how he challenged current thinking…..even challenged the Supreme Court, all in the quest for citizenship. This is one story about Lincoln that I can almost guarantee you have never been taught in your history books.
When Lincoln moved from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington after his election, he took with him a man named William H. Johnson. Johnson worked part-time in the White House, directly for the president, and part time in the Department of the Treasury. He was Lincoln’s personal assistant, or butler, or valet. He was a man of color. Lincoln retuned from the Gettysburg Cemetery dedication with a case of what was probably smallpox, and it’s believed he gave it to Johnson. Lincoln recovered, but Johnson did not. History books are scant on details, but Johnson died sometime before the end of January of 1864.
The president had him buried in what is now Arlington National Cemetery, where you may see his headstone today. The inscription reads, “William H. Johnson….Citizen.” A modest inscription, yes, but monumental to those who find obscure little histories fascinating. And I’ll tell you why.
The Supreme Court had rendered a decision in the Dred Scott case that ruled people of African descent, whether or not they were slaves, could never be citizens of the United States. They were private property, not persons. That was 1857. Johnson died in 1864, and according to the Supreme Court, he could not be a citizen simply because of his heritage. Lincoln would have none of that, and even though he was obliged to deal with the ruling by the Supreme Court, he wanted it known that William H. Johnson WAS a citizen of these United States, Supreme Court or not.
And in case you’re wondering what happened to that Dred Scott decision by the court, it was nullified by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – it abolished slavery; and by the 14th Amendment – which guaranteed full rights and citizenship, regardless of race.
I mentioned earlier that American citizenship was a gift for most of us. That certainly was not the case for William H. Johnson. Though he was a modest man, he has come to symbolize the values embodied in the term “citizen.” A president fought for Mr. Johnson’s right to be a citizen. A supreme court ruled against it. And an entire nation, in ratifying two amendments to our Constitution, affirmed it.
You’re not too far away to visit Arlington Cemetery. If you have a spare moment, drop by and pay your respects to Mr. William H. Johnson….citizen. And pay your respects to the nation that finally got it right!
Arlington is just a few minutes from my office. On many occasions, I join members of my office as we pay our respects to Americans who have made the supreme sacrifice. They were once missing in action from past conflicts, but we’ve found them, identified them, reunited them with their families, and laid them to rest in this hallowed ground. I have often found solace and reaffirmation of my love of this country walking the verdant field, gazing at the row upon row of stark white tombstones, standing like soldiers on parade. I am still moved to tears by the sight of the caisson and the riderless horse, and the sound of taps wafting on the breeze.
Most of the people in Arlington are ordinary men who volunteered to do an extraordinary job – that of defending their nation by giving their most precious possession – their lives.
I’ve had the good fortune to be with our teams as they’re tramping through the jungles, looking for tiny fragments of a man’s life – teeth, dogtags, ID cards – anything that would help our scientists make an identification and bring them home again. It’s dangerous work, but it’s done because of the value that our nation places on one life, and on the sacrifices that American families continue to make.
I’ve also had the honor of meeting a few men who were once held as prisoners of war. They endured torture, though most don’t like to talk about it. Often with heads down, and while shuffling their feet, they seem almost embarrassed that the rest of us call them “heroes.” Well, I’m here to tell you that these men ARE heroes by anyone’s definition. Could any of us have endured what they endured? I just find it hard to put labels on these guys, and all of us should be honored to be in their company.
One is a young man who went off to war in the 60s, simply because his nation called. But even before that, he flew 52 combat missions in Korea and was hit by enemy fire twice in his F-84G fighter-bomber. For most of us, that would be it! Done! Finished! I’ve paid my dues.
But not Fred Cherry. He flew mostly out of bases in Thailand, attacking the enemy along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, then other military targets farther north. He was one of the few pilots who had combat experience from the Korean War, so the younger ones wanted to fly with him.
But, as we all know, his orders to return home finally came. If you’ve been in combat, that’s almost your ticket to salvation. Most ordinary folks – myself included – would begin to be very, very careful that they don’t expose themselves to additional dangers just before they’re supposed to go home.
But not Fred Cherry. I read an account of what happened to him in the Virginian Pilot newspaper, near his hometown. It said that he begged his squadron commander for just one last shot at combat. Extend his tour by one more month. The commander relented, but gave him only two weeks. But one week later, on October 22, 1965, — as fate would have it – Fred Cherry was shot down.
As he ejected from a very low altitude, his parachute failed to open and he was still strapped in his ejection seat. Screaming through the air at almost 700 miles per hour, a chute would have been ripped to shreds anyway. But he managed to free himself from the ejection seat, and manually popped the chute.
Waiting below was an angry crowd of armed militiamen and farmers. When he finally landed in the rice paddies of North Vietnam, the villagers rang gongs to alert the population that one of the Air Pirates had been captured. The mobs grew larger, and angrier, and the interrogation began almost immediately. Many were shouting “Kill the Yankee! Kill the Yankee!”
When the blessing of nightfall finally came, he began to feel the results of his violent bailout. He felt horrible pain in his left shoulder, wrist and ankle. All had been broken in the ejection or the hard landing.
One of his early meetings with a North Vietnamese interrogator began with Cherry’s head being slammed down on a table. And so it began. As he coughed up a few lies for his torturers, he remembered what his mother had once said, that “a lie has no memory.” He had to be careful though. If he went too deep in his lies, his interrogators would surely catch him and they might beat him to death trying to straighten out the story.
He was moved back and forth among prison camps. He had the usual out of body death experiences, and his weight dropped down to 80 pounds. The Vietnamese doctors periodically cut away dead flesh – without anesthesia. Among his many tortures, he once described this procedure as the “worst straight pain” he had ever known.
He was beaten with bamboo sticks and strips of rubber, but he held on. During one beating, a bone chip from his rib pierced his lung. It was removed months later to keep it from piercing his heart. But the surgeons used stitches that didn’t dissolve. He coughed up one a year later, he said.
He held out. He resisted. And he almost lost his life in the process. In addition to breaking his body, his captors attempted to break his faith, his character and his mind. He remembered a dreadful day when his captors brought him in for another interrogation. They told him that Martin Luther King, Junior, had just been murdered. They pointed out all the injustices and intolerances that seemed to be sweeping across America. He held on. After that session, he wept silently and questioned his own ability to hang on.
Oh, did I forget to tell you? Major Fred Cherry was a black American. Ask any of the hundreds of men who were fellow captives with Fred Cherry, and few of them will tell you first that he was a black American. They will tell you that no one, NO ONE caught more grief from his torturers than did Fred Cherry….that NO ONE gave them more strength than did Fred Cherry, simply by enduring, by surviving, by refusing to renounce his country and his citizenship.
Was he a black Air Force pilot? Yes, but that’s not how he’s remembered by his comrades. To them, he was a brave American, a heroic American, an American crouching with them behind that concrete wall, and an American who endured a living hell, just because of who he was and what he stood for.
Was he given the gift of American citizenship? Sure. But Fred Cherry — Colonel Fred Cherry — showed the rest of us, the rest of his comrades, what it means to defend that gift, to protect it, to cherish it.
America’s road to becoming a great nation is strengthened by men like William H. Johnson and Colonel Fred Cherry, men who in a quiet way shone a light for the rest of us. Men who were not given their citizenship, nor did they take it lightly. Men who from Boston to Baghdad from Bunker Hill to Basra step forward when their country calls, and who are willing to give the last full measure in her defense. They are not given their citizenship, they earn it; their citizenship is bought and paid for in blood. These are men whose journey must be remembered and honored, by all of us, but especially on days like today.
In his first inauguration speech this past January 20, President Obama said it best, referring to the hard times ahead for our nation and its people. “When we were tested, we refused to let this journey end. That is the price — and the promise — of citizenship.”
This is a speech I gave at Black History Month observances at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD on February 12, 2009. Comments or views on this are welcome.