Friday, March 31, 2017

General John Pershing: Civil Rights Hero

General Pershing became most famous for leading the United States Army in World War One. But many years earlier, he took courageous steps to acknowledge the contributions of African-Americans in the nation’s military.

Having graduated from West Point in 1886, one of his earliest assignments was, according to historian Kevin Hymel,

with both the 6th and 10th Cavalry Regiments. The 10th was one of two black cavalry regiments commanded by white officers. Pershing was called “Black Jack” in reference to his service with the10th, and the nickname stuck long after he left it.

Pershing was proud of his service with the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the nickname given to the African-American cavalrymen. In 1898, when the Spanish-American war began, Pershing insisted on rejoining the Buffalo Soldiers as they went into action in Cuba.

In his own words, Pershing described what he saw as a wonderful unity among the soldiers:

Each officer or soldier next in rank took charge of the line or group immediately in his front or rear and halting to fire at each good opportunity, taking reasonable advantage of cover, the entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees. White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.

Years later, when Pershing was commanding in Europe during WW1, his loyalty to Black soldiers would lead him to assignment them to meaningful combat roles. Pershing answered to President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had reintroduced segregation into the civilian branches of the government.

As Commander-in-Chief, Wilson was not pleased to see African-American troops taking on significant military tasks. In assigning Black troops to the same types of duties as any other troops, Pershing showed that he was willing to risk Wilson’s displeasure.