As Veterans Day recedes into the rearview mirror, one thing remains clear: we can honor the historic sacrifices that veterans have made for the United States and their continued work to preserve and defend American democracy. In the weeks before Election Day, the “Election Defenders” mobilized veterans to protect polling stations and post offices from attacks encouraged by President Trump. Election Defenders sparked “Joy to the Polls” celebrations/demonstrations across the country, and popped up in election-day stories datelined Texas, Phoenix, and Atlanta, for protecting Latino voters in Georgia. Among the many veterans paving the way is Gulf War-era veteran Aimee Allison, whose organization She the People started organizing for the Biden victory in early 2019.
Defeating Donald Trump is just one stage of the era’s most important battle for veterans: eliminating systemic racism. Both veterans and active-duty personnel are showing up on the ground to protect the Movement for Black Lives, citing their own oath to the Constitution of the United States.
This summer’s uprising sparked the creation of new groups by veterans — some of whom had never thought of themselves as activists — such as Wall of Vets and Continue to Serve. It also activated ongoing advocacy organizations like Veterans for Peace, which has been supportive of Black Lives Matter from the beginning. Anti-racist activism by servicemembers and veterans has a long and proud history.
In the spring of 1813, fifteen-year-old indentured servant William Apess enlisted because he was broke, no longer willing to be tormented by a Connecticut farmer who thought he could batter an African-Pequot boy at will. But, he reflected, “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs, in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land.” Apess suffered racist harassment from his commanders on the way to duty in Plattsburgh, and went on to become a Methodist “Indian preacher” who dissented via storytelling, as he fought for the rights of Native Americans in the still-new nation.
In the Civil War, the 2nd Colorado Division included Silas Soule, who’d long fought with John Brown and who refused orders to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre of Arapaho Indians, while Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis fought with the Massachusetts 54th and went on to excoriate the war that followed, in which Black soldiers were sent to the Philippines in a war explicitly against people of color. Douglass was joined in this dissent by other Civil War veterans, including Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. Toward the end of his life, Douglass joined members of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Niagara movement” at the West Virginia fort that had been the last stand of John Brown.
Numerous soldiers and vets joined the movements led by du Bois that demanded an end to military segregation as World War II began. The struggle inside the military included the 1944 Port Chicago mutiny, in which 248 Black sailors refused orders to load ammunition that had already caused one ship to explode. The orders came from white officers who before then “didn’t have much to do with us no more than to stand around and supervise and see that we load that ammunition,” according to Gregory Meeks, on of 50 sailors court-martialed for that refusal. Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP counsel, said “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward negroes.”
Veterans joined the civil rights movement that emerged after the war in droves, following the lead of Bayard Rustin, an ROTC dropout who had mentored the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1940s and Martin Luther King Jr. after 1955. Other dissenting World War II vets included Army veteran Staughton Lynd, beloved by the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, and Black Panthers co-founder and Air Force veteran Bobby Seale. Inside the military during the U.S. war against Vietnam, Black personnel “said they were in Vietnam fighting a white man’s war and that they were being made to fight their ‘yellow brothers,’” remembered one former Marine Corps medic, remembering when black soldiers at the massive Long Binh prison complex rioted in August 1968. The rebellion at “Camp LBJ,” as it was called, was born of segregated conditions, alleged mistreatment, guards’ racial slurs, and growing Black Power consciousness. “They would claim conscientious objector status and end up at Long Binh Jail,” since refusal to fight “white men’s wars” did not fit neatly into the military’s regulations on conscience. Black personnel also were central to the GI movement that helped end that war.
In the years since, echoes of resistance to white supremacy have sounded in the work of many soldiers and veterans, including those now supporting the Movement for Black Lives. Vietnam vet Mike Hastie was on the Portland front line in July 2020, while Marine Corps veteran David Smith was organizing in D.C. after protesters were brutalized in Lafayette Park. Numerous military and National Guard personnel are refusing deployment against civilians; one young Navy officer wrote to his counsel that he didn’t want to become like the officers who stood by when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.[JRE1] [CL2] [CL3] [CL4] [CL5]
This Veterans Day let us honor all veterans–including those men and women working with strength and vigor to eliminate systemic racism and end white supremacy. They are part of a long, proud legacy of military service and service to our country.