When President Donald Trump publicly questioned the widow of a slain Green Beret on Monday morning, it was typical of the president’s disdain for decorum, his stubborn aggressiveness, and his penchant for impulsive behavior. In some ways, it echoed his attacks on Sen. John McCain in the early days of the Republican presidential primary.
But Trump’s dispute with Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, was also fundamentally different from any of his prior feuds because it came in the context of a complicated history involving black Americans and the armed forces.
That Sgt. Johnson was black, and Myeshia Johnson is black, are not incidental details in this story. They are the context which gives this confrontation particular resonance in American history, and makes it so fraught with meaning. From its inception, this country has had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of black military service, to say nothing of individual black soldiers and their families.
The 1775 Continental Congress didn’t exclude black Americans when it created an army for the fledgling American independence movement, but it wasn’t eager to arm them either. Before the end of that year, notes the late historian Bernard C. Nalty in Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military, Gen. George Washington and his officers would agree “unanimously to reject all slaves” and by a great majority agree to “reject negroes altogether.” Military necessity changed the policy; by 1780, Maryland accepted individual black recruits, and the once-reticent Continental Congress called on South Carolina and Georgia to raise a force of 3,000 black troops who would receive freedom in return for service. But delegates from both colonies rejected the proposal.
Ultimately 5,000 black Americans served in the Continental Army, establishing a tradition of black military service that persists to the present. But while blacks have fought in each of the country’s wars and conflicts, it’s not been until recently that their participation was welcome. And the reasons have always been tied to the nation’s race hierarchy.
During the Revolutionary War, whites across the 13 colonies were reticent to arm free blacks and enslaved people, fearing rebellion. During the early years of the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic rejected free blacks eager to fight for its cause. It’s not that President Lincoln and his generals feared rebellion—since these soldiers would be fighting to preserve the Union against a rebellion of whites—but that black soldiers would alienate pro-union Americans who saw the conflict as a “white man’s war.” In The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military, Gerald Astor quotes a 19-year-old corporal in a New York division who declared: “We don’t want to fight side and side with the nigger. We think we are too superior a race for that.”
This quote gets to one of the larger forces at work: Even before integrated units, the mere fact of black soldiers challenged ideals of American manhood and citizenship that were built on whiteness. To take up arms in defense of the nation was both an obligation of citizenship and a privilege rightfully reserved for white men. When, late in the war, Confederate leaders contemplated the enlistment of enslaved people, one of their number—Georgia’s Howell Cobb—warned that “If slaves will make good soldiers then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” The essence of this sentiment, its premise of black inferiority, was just as prevalent in the North.
Eventually, military necessity would again force the issue. First came the Emancipation Proclamation, then an active effort to recruit and organize black soldiers. Nearly 180,000 freemen and freedmen would serve in the Union Army, bolstering the force as it fought a brutal war of attrition against the Confederacy. They would do so facing discrimination, inferior pay, and a leadership that didn’t quite trust their abilities: Black regiments were led by white officers.
The belief that black service represented a threat to white manhood, white citizenship, and race hierarchy would animate the violent reaction against black soldiers during and after the First World War. Staunch Southern opposition to the recruitment of black soldiers meant that the vast majority of the 380,000 black men who served in the wartime army did so in service units tasked with labor and supply work. Even there, they served in segregated units with white supervisors. Just 42,000 were assigned to combat duty, and Jim Crow crossed the Atlantic with them, too.
“Black soldiers and workers believed their participation in the effort to make the world safe for democracy had earned them the equal rights they had been promised in the Constitution since the close of the Civil War,” writes Cameron McWhirter in Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. When they came to assert those rights after the war, white Americans went on the attack. Anti-black riots swept cities like Knoxville, Tennessee; Chicago; Washington; and Omaha, Nebraska. More than 80 black Americans were lynched that year, and some black service members were lynched in their uniforms. This violence was, in large part, an effort to re-impose race hierarchy and re-establish the link between whiteness and citizenship, to ensure that blacks who fought in the trenches not translate that sacrifice into actual equality.
Not even the fight against Nazism was enough to compel the United States to accept black enlistees on equal terms with their white counterparts. Blacks again fought in segregated units and again faced racism from white officers and enlisted men. Nalty notes that “Many white officers did not credit blacks with intelligence, let alone hopes or ambitions or indeed feelings of any sort.”
Eventually, the Army would grant access to recreational facilities, and black units would serve in combat in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war. Necessity brought some incremental integration, as the War Department was forced to include black soldiers in white units. Full integration wouldn’t come until after the Second World War, with an executive order from President Harry Truman. And that was only inside the military: In the civilian world, Jim Crow would hold sway for another 20 years.
It is only since then that black Americans have fought as equals, entitled to the same privileges and respect as their white counterparts.
There’s little chance that Donald Trump knows this history of hostility and disrespect, even as he evokes it with his conduct toward Myeshia Johnson. The dynamic seems to capture Trump’s broader relationship to history. He is untethered from any knowledge of America’s past, from any grappling with the pain and injustice that shapes and defines much of this country’s history. Despite this, he taps again and again into its most tumultuous currents. With his cheap demagoguery and political clumsiness, Trump has been a disruptive force, not to “Make America Great Again,” but to inflame old tensions and open even older wounds.