During the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a plaque dedicated to the 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit that fought in World War I, was vandalized. The incident unburied their story that was over a century old. The regiment was stationed in the Jim Crow-era Houston, TX in 1917 and mutinied against racism and discrimination.
“The ‘Houston Riot of 1917’ would result in the largest murder trial in U.S. history,” according to the Washington Post.
The 24th Infantry Regiment faced racism, harassment and violence from both white police officers and local residents. Soldiers had to tolerate the full effects of Jim Crow segregation laws, including drinking from separate fountains but also had rocks thrown at them by residents and frequently dealt with aggression from police, sometimes resulting in injury.
The regiment finally reached their breaking point after the assault of a black woman. White Houston police officers reportedly stormed the home of a black female resident, dragged her outside and proceed to beat her in front of her five children. Soldier Alonso Edwards intervened in the woman’s defense. He was pistol-whipped and beaten for his efforts then held in jail.
But then false reports reached the regiment that Edwards had been killed. In response, 156 armed black soldiers marched into Houston. The march escalated into a bloody shootout between white cops and residents against the 24th Infantry Regiment that concluded in the death of four black soldiers and 15 white locals.
The soldiers then were arrested and charged, all represented by one white lawyer– with no trial experience. The court martial, separated into three parts, was the largest in US military history. Out of the 150 estimated soldiers that participated in the mutiny, 118 were indicted, 110 found guilty, 19 were hanged and 63 received life sentences, according to BBC. A little over a century ago, the first 13 soldiers were hanged in the first wave of court martials. In the second and third wave a total of 16 soldiers were sentenced to death but then President Woodrow Wilson commuted the sentences of ten of them. Although the Wilson administration claims to have seen thorough evidence that led to their denial of clemency for the other soldiers, it’s widely believed that the circumstances of the trial was unfair and innocent men were executed without cause.
“For decades, no name appeared above the grave of Corporal Jesse Moore, only the number seven. The figure corresponded to noose number seven which was used to hang him and another 12 African-American soldiers beside the Salado Creek of San Antonio in December 1917,” wrote BBC.
As the 24th Infantry Regiment stood in line to be hanged, they reportedly sung “Lord I’m Comin’ Home,” a song about the complete surrender to the will of God and fearlessness from death. The sacrifice of the soldiers during the Houston Mutiny Riots is accredited with sparking the chain of rebellion that led to the “Red Summer” of 1919, according to Black Past, a string of violent anti-black riots between May and October that led to hundreds of casualties. The race riots began after black WWI veterans returned to more discrimination and lack of job opportunity, in most cases white rioters were also the agitators. This eventually led to a mass exodus of black southerners to the North as well as the birth of the black intellectual movement challenging white supremacy.
Organizations like the NAACP pushed to posthumously pardon the soldiers. The request for pardon eventually reached Obama but the administration released a statement shortly before leaving office claiming they don’t give pardons posthumously. So the matter has been passed to the Trump’s administration desk.
The 24th Infantry Regiment fought for its country with valor but returned to discrimination and police brutality. Soldiers fighting for their basic human rights may seem justified, but often when black Americans protest against police brutality and harassment they are condemned as anti-American and unpatriotic. Similar to Colin Kaepernick whose career was upended for a silent, peaceful protest. Or Martin Luther King Jr. who until recent history was seen as a terrorist and was spent most of his life monitored by the FBI. Yet, what is more patriotic than the standing up (or kneeling) for the principles of freedom and justice this nation was supposedly founded on?
The difference between patriotism and nationalism is the difference constructive criticism and blind loyalty. Patriots are proud of their country but are dedicated enough to advocate for its improvement. Nationalists cling onto dysfunctional, poisonous ideologies and deify movements that target groups of people as the “other”. Protesting against injustice is one of the most patriotic acts a citizen can do because it paves the way for growth and prosperity in the future. Today, movements fighting for civil rights follow similar footsteps of defiance and protest not as thugs, crooks or whiners but American patriots. Hopefully it won’t take a hundred more years for these movements to receive the respect and recognition they deserve,