In December 1941, my father left college at Iowa State, hitchhiked back to Upstate NY and declared to his parents that he would not be returning to college, instead enlisting in the service. In June of 1942, he was accepted into the Army Air Corp Cadet program. He was on a boat headed overseas in Spring 1944. There, as a member of the 8th Air Force 457th Bomb Group, he flew 17 missions as 1st Lieutenant, Aircraft Commander on the B-17 Flying Fortress. On his 17th mission, November 2, 1944, he was shot down over Merseberg Germany and taken prisoner of war. He was placed on a forced march in January 1945 with thousands of American POW’s. Suffering from frost bite and malnutrition, he nearly died, but managed to survive and see his POW camp liberated by General Patton in May 1945.
Meanwhile, my mother is stateside, fighting a war of her own. In 1945, she was 20 years old. It would be another 17 years before they meet.
My father is based in Washington DC but flying out of O’Hare. He spends most of his time at the YMCA near the airport when he’s not flying. He knows no one. He is befriended by a baggage porter, Donald, who sees him headed to the YMCA many a night. Donald invites my father to his home one evening. He offers his friendship to a young pilot who seems quite lonely. My father accepts.
He arrives at the party, a house party in Hyde Park, Illinois. He is introduced to a sea of color. Although spending time overseas, this is the first time he has been immersed in a culture that is not white. Then, he sees her.
They marry. His family is disgusted. His sister tells him not to have children. They move to Robbins, Illinois, a predominantly black neighborhood where they are accepted. He is beginning to realize that this will be a challenge bigger than his war experience, for now, he’s fighting a war on his home soil. Their marriage is illegal in 21 states. They are not free to travel the country for which he fought to keep free. He realizes this “freedom” does not apply to everyone. They suffer indignities, prejudice and physical threats but continuing fighting for civil rights.
I am born. My parents continue to fight for civil rights. 5 states have overturned their interracial marriage bans. 16 dig their heels in. This decorated war hero cannot bring his wife and child with him when he travels because they could be arrested and his child taken by the state. While other airline families enjoy the perks of travel, my mother and I stay home.
The Supreme Court rules that all bans on interracial marriage are unconstitutional. It takes two states several years to amend their state constitutions and remove the offending language.
South Carolina 1998 Alabama 2000
You read that right; 1998 and 2000.
My father and mother have endured and persevered over some of the most heinous behaviors perpetrated by their own country. For nearly 50 years, they were stared at, ostracized and mistreated by ignorant American citizens. Even in my mother’s illness and death, many hospital workers treated her with less than dignified care. My father, tired and distraught, turned to me to fight for proper care for his loving wife. Today, he proudly displays his family photos in his room at the nursing home and he is still met with prejudice and bigotry. He is 95 years old. He has fought for civil rights for more than 50 years, even taking a stand against the Chicago Police Department for mistreatment of black citizens, including the arrest of his wife and child for driving a Cadillac while black.
Is he less of a patriot; less of a war hero?
So, when hundreds of African American citizens take to the streets or a few black athletes take a seat in quiet protest over an anthem and a pledge that professes Liberty and Justice for ALL, perhaps you might think about and remind yourself that everyone has a different reality. Change does not occur without a loud protest or a gentle nudge. From throwing tea into the Boston Harbor to taking a knee during the National Anthem, we all have the right to love our country AND be a catalyst for positive change.