The military is one of our nation’s most revered and essential institutions, filled with courageous men and women who willingly sacrifice so much for our nation’s greater good. It is a point of pride among African Americans that Black soldiers have served in the military since the American Revolution and the War of 1812 – long before they were even recognized in law as full-fledged people.
So I was particularly touched to be selected as recipient of an award given in the name of one of the first true Black military heroes, Colonel Charles Young. Born in neutral Kentucky while the Civil War was still raging, Charles Young in 1889 became only the third African American to graduate from West Point and, later, the first Black U.S. national park superintendent and first African American to achieve the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. We also share a brotherhood through the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
This month the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument marked his 154th birthday, where it was my great fortune to receive the Trailblazer Award at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.
Every award, every honor, is something to be cherished. But it is particularly humbling to be recognized in the name of such a trailblazer. I have spent my career working to bring justice to African Americans and all people of color, just as Colonel Young spent his life dispelling common myths about what Blacks were capable of — or, more accurately, what most folks figured they were not capable of.
In Colonel Young’s day, it was simply an accepted fact that Blacks would not receive the same kind of opportunity as their White counterparts. For example, Colonel Young was denied becoming the 1st Black general of the military, even though he was more than qualified, simply because White superior officers did not want to take orders from a Black general. They claimed that he was not medically fit enough to receive such a promotion – in true Colonel Young fashion, he rode his horse over 100 miles to prove his fitness for duty.
Just like Colonel Young, the Buffalo Soldiers heroically showed just what Black soldiers were capable of contributing through hard work, dedication and service at a time when half the country did not want to even acknowledge they were whole citizens.
In the end, Colonel Young died 26 years before President Harry Truman issued an executive order officially ending racial segregation in the military. At least, that was the idea. The reality is that racism continues to infest all branches of our military, even if more subtly.
The nonprofit advocacy group Protect Our Defenders carefully examined almost 10 years of data to identify racial disparity in the military. Not surprisingly, they found it in abundance. Their report last year found that across every branch, Black service members are as much as 2.5 times more likely to face military justice or disciplinary action than their white counterparts.
The example of men like Charles Young show us that people of color can endure, and even thrive, within the nation’s military despite a culture of racism, whether official or otherwise. But it’s equally clear that people of color should not have to overcome such a challenge, in the military and in society in general.
I am committed to doing everything within my power to see that the oppressed find justice wherever possible. That is why it is such a tremendous honor to be recognized in Colonel Young’s name.
It is time for our nation to live up to the promise that Charles Young saw when he looked at America.
Ben Crump is a nationally known civil rights attorney and advocate, and is the founder and principal of Ben Crump Law.