“Breath of Freedom,” a documentary airing Monday, reminds us that the world is sometimes a bizarre place, one in which a country can fight a war abroad as the champion of freedom and democracy, while enshrining their opposites in law and practice.
But there is something hopeful in the program, too. The two-hour television special is the story of black American veterans who experienced greater freedom while serving in Germany than they’d had in the U.S., and came back determined to change circumstances at home, playing significant roles in the modern civil-rights movement.
The story is told in film clips and interviews through the experiences of Americans and Germans, black, white and mixed race, including retired King County Superior Court Judge Charles Johnson, who served during the occupation.
Hosea Williams, a close associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, was a sergeant in a unit that fought under Gen. George Patton. Williams earned a Purple Heart after being severely injured in a Nazi bombing raid, but he wasn’t safe at home after the war.
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He was still in uniform traveling home after the war when he drank water from a bus-station fountain reserved for whites. An angry crowd beat him so badly they thought he was dead and called a hearse. He was just barely alive, but had to be driven past white hospitals to a veterans hospital more than 100 miles away where he was hospitalized for a month.
Nothing about that makes sense, but it wasn’t just a matter of a few people behaving badly, it was part of the systematic subjugation of black Americans rooted in laws those veterans would help change.
Johnson, who grew up in Arkansas, joined the Army in 1948 and served almost four years in a segregated unit in Germany. While he was there, he had a German girlfriend with whom he traveled all around the country. It opened a whole new world to him, he says in the documentary, but when he came home, he returned alone.
I asked him about that last week and he said, “She wanted to come here, but I knew I couldn’t live that kind of life here in the United States. It’s something you just didn’t let yourself think about because you knew it couldn’t work here.” Interracial marriage was banned in most states until the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling in 1967.
The Germans hadn’t suddenly given up the racist ideas that led to death camps, but the power equation was different. Johnson said Germans didn’t always like seeing him and his friends dating German women, but they had to tolerate it.
Johnson came home with a mission, to get a law degree and get out of Arkansas. While he was finishing college after the war, he told a professor he wanted to attend law school and was looking for a place where he’d be able to get a job. The professor had earned a Ph.D. from the University of Washington while working nights at the post office.
Johnson came here in 1954, got a job at the post office and finished his degree, the only black person in the 1957 graduating class of UW’s Law School. Shortly after, he was recruited to lead Seattle’s NAACP chapter .
For a young man from Arkansas, Johnson said, Seattle was a breath of freedom, but not without problems. He joined the fight for open housing, employment opportunities for black residents, and school integration, before becoming a judge.
Veterans all across the country brought skills they’d acquired in the military to bear on the struggle for rights at home, animated by a strong sense of justice that grew from the indignity of segregated military service and the taste of equality with Europeans abroad.
Their role in the fight for equality has been getting much deserved attention in recent years. University of Washington political-science professor Christopher Parker wrote about it in his 2009 book, “Fighting for Democracy: Black Veterans and the Fight Against White Supremacy in the Postwar South.”
The late Ronald Takaki looks at the experiences of a broad spectrum of Americans seeking equality during World War II in his 2001 book, “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II.”
These pieces of our history are testaments to the power of the ideals that America sometimes still struggles to embrace. Revisiting this history shows how much we’ve grown as a nation because of people committed to fighting for those ideals.
“Breath of Freedom” airs at 8 p.m. Monday on the Smithsonian Channel.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org