Christopher Parker is a Navy veteran who still gets excited when the fleet comes to town.

Christopher Parker is a Navy veteran who still gets excited when the fleet comes to town.

“I see a ship … and I want to be out there with them,” he said when we visited in his office at the University of Washington.

Military service changes people, Parker said, and often veterans change the country, too.

Serving can deepen a person’s commitment to American ideals while it builds discipline, teamwork, toughness, confidence and other ingredients of effective civic engagement.

Parker, 46, is now an assistant professor of political science. In his first book, “Fighting for Democracy,” he explores the role of black veterans in bringing real democracy to the American South after World War II.

Parker’s interest in the topic is both scholarly and personal. He was aboard ship one day thinking, “I’m sitting in the combat information center and I’m 21 years old and I have all these other people who are older than me working for me, and I’m the only black man.”

He thought, “Wow, my granddad was a steward. He was cleaning staterooms and serving mess to officers.”

Parker has an older cousin who fought in Korea and would talk about his experiences with racism while in uniform.

After one of those conversations, “I wondered why men like him and my grandfather … would serve a country in which they were just nominal citizens, at best. That’s what led me to do the deep research that I conducted for this book,” he said.

He found the question has been around for centuries.

What does the citizen owe the nation, and what does the nation owe the citizen?

For generations, black men often saw military service both as a duty and as a path to first-class citizenship.

But even at war, an American could find himself “not treated as a full citizen even though he was performing the highest duty a citizen can perform,” Parker said.

The contradiction led to activism to secure full citizenship.

For most of U.S. history, wartime promises of improved status after service weren’t kept. But World War II veterans, building on the work of previous generations, were able to help bring about changes that stuck.

Parker said WWII veterans’ service in war, and activism afterward at the grass-roots level and in national leadership positions, contributed greatly to the most significant civil-rights advances. He found veterans were much more likely to resist Jim Crow than men who had not fought.

You wear the same uniform. You carry a gun, take risks and make sacrifices, you come back thinking you deserve to be treated like a full citizen.

That applies to other marginalized Americans as well.

Parker mentioned the American GI Forum, which formed in Texas in 1948 to work for fair treatment of Mexican-American World War II veterans.

He believes the stories of gay veterans should play a larger part in the struggle for full citizenship rights for sexual minorities.

Parker interviewed veterans from WWII and Korea, and many times, at the end of an interview, a veteran would say to him, “I’m so proud of you,” as if he were their grandchild.

They paid for his freedom and his citizenship, and he wants everyone to remember: “I don’t want the role of black veterans to be lost in history.”

It should be remembered as a story of Americans fighting for democracy.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.