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Coffey and Wilson explain military Civil Rights to students

By Katie Blackburn
On February 27, 2013


The 13th Annual Civil Rights Conference continued on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 2:30 p.m. in the Watkins Auditorium with "African-American Military Experience and the Struggle for Civil Rights" presented by Dr. David Coffey and Dr. Adam Wilson.

Dr. Renee LaFleur welcomed Coffey to the lectern, and he began his presentation, "'In Your Hands That Musket Means Liberty': An Overview of the Importance of Military Service in the Struggle for Civil Rights." 

Coffey began by stating that African-Americans had been a present force in almost every armed conflict fought in North America from the colonial period to the present, even including slaves.  African-Americans saw military participation as a way to gain freedom, and later, equality.

"They fought, they worked, they served, ... growing increasingly aware of the national service offering opportunity to prove their worth, their manhood, their equality," Coffey said.

A quote by Fredrick Douglass that was read by Coffey had a connection to the title of his paper.  The quote, which at the time urged African-Americans to volunteer for military service, read, "Never since the world began was a better chance offered to a longed enslaved and oppressed people. The opportunity is given us to be men with one courageous resolution: we may blot out the handwriting of ages against us.  Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket. There is no power on earth, or under the earth, which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States. In your hands, that musket means liberty."

Coffey expressed that service in the military was one of the few paths of progress for African American men. He points out, however, the forms of discrimination faced by them throughout the different conflicts and the fact that it was not until the Vietnam War that this issue was brought to the forefront and fought against by people like Martin Luther King.  Coffey stated that despite the many difficulties of the Vietnam War, its results brought us closer to the vision of Fredrick Douglass and, today, the military remains one of our greatest equal opportunity employers and a source of pride for the black soldiers, airmen and marines.

Following Coffey, Wilson took the stage with his presentation titled "Deeds, Not Words: African-American Officers of World War I in the Battle for Racial Equality." 

Wilson's dissertation is based on African-American experience at Fort Des Moines in WWI.  His topic was formed around how military service played into a gain in the aspects with Civil Rights for African-Americans.

Introducing his essay, Wilson stated, "This question kept coming up in my mind, and the question was, 'Why were African-Americans so willing to fight considering the discrimination they faced at home?'" He then went on to discuss discrimination of African-American soldiers throughout history from as far back to the American Revolution up to WWI. 

Wilson also referred to Dr. Harding's presentation earlier in the day, stating that the early Civil Rights Movement should be called the Southern-based Black-led movement for the expansion of Democracy instead. 

"That's kind of what's going on with these guys of WWI; they are fighting in movement for the expansion of democracy, and so they are saying with their equal sacrifice they should gain equal citizenship," Wilson said. "The reason these supporters believed what they did was they thought that from this conflict their patriotism, their spilt blood would equate with worthiness for equal treatment."

The 369th infantry of the 93rd division known as the "Harlem Hellfighters" were the most successful African-American soldiers who fought alongside the French, fought 191 days on the front and never lost a trench; however, they did not receive the warm welcome home that white soldiers did.

They used this as motivation to keep moving forward. The motto of the officers from Fort Des Moines was "Deeds not words," meaning that their actions speak louder than their words. 

The presentation was wrapped up with a question and answer portion with the audience.

Coffey is a professor and Chair of the UTM History and Philosophy Department. He is the author of many books on Civil War history and editor of several military history encyclopedias.

Wilson is a U.S. History teacher at the Jackson Center of UTM. He has been a professor there for the past two years. 

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