In 1919, Wilbur Little returned home to Blakely, Georgia after serving in World War I. Instead of being heralded as a hero he was savagely attacked in public by white thugs. The mob forced him to take off his uniform and strip to his underwear. When he refused to obey the mob’s demand that he never wear his uniform in public again, he was lynched.
Little was murdered during the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919 when race riots instigated by whites swept the nation, fueled by postwar tensions over jobs, housing and the wave of African Americans moving to Northern cities. Isabel Wilkerson recalls the irony of his lynching in her landmark work on the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. Instead of being treated like heroes, black World War I veterans were subjected to white hostility and outright terrorism. “America the Beautiful” hypocrisy was never more so than in its treatment of soldiers of color hoodwinked into believing Jim Crow violence would magically dissipate with military service.
During World War I, families who’d lost relatives in combat were dubbed Gold Star families. Because Wilbur Little was lynched on American soil, his family never received this designation, his death due to one of the longest wars the U.S. has waged—one against its own black “citizens”.
Decades later, this paradox still resonates when it comes to the fraught question of African Americans and other people of color serving a “democratic” war machine—to paraphrase conscientious objector Muhammed Ali—based on inhumane, imperialist militarism towards nations of color. The recent flap over the Khan family’s DNC speech—parents of slain Gold Star soldier Capt. Humayan Khan, viciously maligned by Donald Trump and catapulted into the national arena as symbols of Muslim Americans’ unappreciated sacrifices to “God and Country”— highlights the divide between the aspirations of immigrants of color and the homegrown reality of white Christian supremacy. No matter what the “good” upstanding immigrant/person of color does to meet the litmus test of American patriotism they will never be validated by the dominant culture as human/citizen/hero—especially in times of nativist backlash. In his DNC speech, as well as during his TV appearances, Khizr Khan trumpeted the exceptionalist line, invoking the Constitution and proclaiming (in response to the outpouring of support the couple received after Trump’s tirade) that “every step they [the U.S.] take, the world emulates it.”
Throughout the GOP and Democratic conventions, both parties predictably trafficked in flag waving bombast and paeans to American exceptionalism. Awash in “Greatest Nation” platitudes, the DNC was capped by Hillary Clinton and President Obama’s repeated invocations of the slaveholder-rapist founding fathers.
Of course, one of the most eloquent (semi) antidotes to this propaganda came when Michele Obama referenced the slave legacy of the White House’s construction. The First Lady thoughtfully summoned the image of her daughters romping on a lawn that black folk tending to antebellum plantations could only have dreamed of. It was a subtle, albeit unintended, rebuke of the rabid Christian fascism spewed by Ben Carson the week before when he proclaimed that secular progressives are “antithetical” to the principles of the founding fathers. In true lunatic fringe mode, Carson went off the rails about the Dems being in league with Lucifer, while Michele Obama highlighted the subtext of America’s New Jim Crow reality in which the descendants of the White House builders are in another kind of bondage, one cosigned by the Clinton/Obama administrations.
For his part, President Obama sounded the theme that everyone on the planet strives to emulate the U.S. “American democracy works”, Obama declared. “Gone” were the record numbers of black and brown inmates incarcerated in American jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities during his time in office. “Gone” were the drones that his administration has unleashed on thousands of Middle Eastern civilians marked for death in the name of American democracy.
Against this backdrop of imperialist devastation, the Khan’s display of patriotic heartbreak was tragically ironic and all too familiar. Similar appeals touting the heroism and basic decency of Muslim-Americans were made in the wake of 9/11’s anti-Muslim backlash. Whether viewed through the lens of 1919 or 2016, when it comes to the sacrificial bodies of people of color, this message of patriotic “redemption” is just another narrative that the “Greatest Nation” will always manipulate to sugar coat its sins of endless occupation.