There has been progress on race relations, but there must be more

Black U.S. soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action in 1918. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.
Black U.S. soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action in 1918. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. U.S. National Archives

My 9-year-old son, Patrick, has taken an interest in Confederate war statues, so my wife and I took him and his two brothers out to Chapel Hill to see “Silent Sam,” whose towering bronze frame, rifled musket at the ready, graces one of UNC’s quads. Of the 1,800 UNC-Chapel Hill students and alums who served in the Confederate forces, 500 never came back alive. We should remember all of them – those who served and those who died.

When Silent Sam was dedicated in 1913, 48 years after the Civil War ended, another war was in the offing. As the U.S. began mustering its armed forces in preparation for entering World War I, black Americans began signing up in record numbers to the angry opposition of white leaders across the South. Eventually, no fewer than 380,000 African-Americans served in France and Belgium.

For white Civil War veterans like Julian S. Carr, who spoke at the dedication of Silent Sam, the writing was on the wall. In his remarks on that June morning in 1913, he took his audience back to 1865 when, within days of having returned from the front, he had “horse-whipped a Negro wench” in Chapel Hill for supposedly having insulted “a Southern Lady.” When African-American veterans returned home (140,000 to North Carolina alone) from the Great War, they entered a new war zone of uncommon viciousness. They were often whipped for the crime of wearing their uniforms in public, and, especially in the Deep South, faced getting lynched or executed by gunshot, almost always by white vigilantes.

The buried history of North Carolina’s black World War I veterans is how they resisted white cruelty with stoic valor – building small businesses as they sharecropped, getting their children through school (even college), and then, unbelievably enough, sending their sons off to serve again in another world war. A century ago in a region torn and divided by discrimination, they sowed the seeds of the civil rights revolution.

Where is their monument?

Somewhere beneath the statue of Silent Sam, there lies a fractured matrix of stories, somehow embedded in our own hearts and minds, about the tragic nature of human longing. Silent Sam speaks to a fragment of that longing, but there are other stories that need to be told. My judgment is that before we pull him down, we honestly excavate that past to repair our present; to ask each other blunt questions about race and violence that reach deep into our history.

While I was teaching in the 1990s in South Africa – a country still teetering on the brink of a race war – the leading Anglican prelate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, proposed holding local forums where truth-telling could be exchanged for forgiveness. It was called, “Truth and Reconciliation.” The nation literally held its breath as horrific confessions by white Afrikaner torturers and black township executioners poured out of these meetings, riveting the nation. Academics, venturing off of their chambered perches, spoke of little-known aspects of South African history, white and black tribalism and explained how the National Party (the Afrikaner party) had hijacked public memory. In the course of over a thousand such meetings, South Africans seemed to heave a huge sigh of relief, and President Nelson Mandela, the former bomb-maker who had found a better way, suddenly had a new, multi-racial constituency.

We in the United States, and especially in the South, should be very proud of all the progress we have made in race relations over the past 50 years. But now it’s as if we’re stuck. Police violence against African-Americans stubbornly continues. Our public and private universities, after spending decades and tens of millions of dollars on diversity and affirmative action programs, are actually doing worse in terms of minority enrollments than they did 35 years ago. Maybe the problem is that we don’t want to talk about the heart of the matter – race as America’s original sin. Without the truth, Bishop Tutu used to say, there is no reconciliation.

In his brief run for the presidency in 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy addressed black and white violence head-on, reminding us that, “Tragedy can be a tool of the living.” Kennedy’s moment of truth came on the evening of April 4 when two motorcycle cops, having heard over their radios that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, brought the senator’s car to a halt on the outskirts of Indianapolis’ large black ghetto. “This place is going to blow,” one of the policeman told Kennedy, who thanked them and said he would go on anyway.

As Kennedy alighted from the car in a large, dusty parking lot where the rally was to take place, the cheers from the crowd indicated that no on knew yet about the shooting. Clambering up on the back of a flat-bed truck, Kennedy took a portable microphone and made the shocking announcement, eliciting shouts and screams from the crowd. Describing King as having given up his life for love and justice among his fellow human beings, Kennedy then spoke of his own feelings when he learned that his older brother had been killed. He concluded:

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

Richard D. Mahoney, the former John F. Kennedy Scholar at the University of Massachusetts and Secretary of State of Arizona, is currently the Director of the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State.