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Every June, I find myself coming across news articles about the anniversary of D-Day. This year, one article really got my attention regarding Richard Stewart; a 102-year-old veteran who, after almost 80 years, returned to Normandy to commemorate the anniversary. Furthermore, Stewart is African American and served his country in a segregated military.

The second-class status Black people faced in the military was abhorrent, but equally so, was being treated like a second-class citizen back home. The National WW II Museum noted, “This willingness on the part of African American soldiers to sacrifice their lives for a country that treated them as second-class citizens is remarkable. Various accounts relate how German prisoners of war could enter facilities reserved for white Americans that Black servicemen could not patronize.”

Fighting for freedom abroad and at home became a rallying cry in the African American community. In January 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier published an editorial by James Thompson that asked the question, “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American,” and believed that African Americans should expand upon the Allies’ “V for Victory” slogan and have the “Double V” for “democracy at home and abroad.”

After the war Black veterans returned home to hostilities. In February 1946, Isaac Woodard was riding on a bus in his uniform, going home after serving abroad. While onboard, Woodard got into a verbal altercation with the driver because he requested to use the restroom. When the bus reached Batesburg, South Carolina, the driver ordered him off the bus and the police arrested him for disorderly conduct. While in custody the police chief and officers beat him so badly that he became blind. While the United States Department of Justice reluctantly indicted the police chief, the trial was a sham, and the jury acquitted the chief after deliberating for about 30 minutes. Woodard’s horrific story was a seminal moment for the civil rights movement and helped shape President Harry Truman’s decision in 1948 to desegregate the military.

During World War II, other groups including Jews felt the harmful impact of discrimination. As a kid, I remember my grandfather recalling being victimized by anti-Semitism in the military. Often, my grandfather encountered people who had never met a Jew. People walked up to him and asked to see his horns. My grandfather remembered some people knew the idea of Jews having horns was an anti-Semitic trope, while others genuinely believed Jews had horns. You really must wonder how a person gets to the point where they honestly believe Jews have horns. In addition, my wife’s grandfather, who served as a tail gunner in World War II, felt that anti-Semitism was so pervasive that to become an officer in the Korean War, he changed his last name to sound less Jewish.

In the documentary “GI Jews: Jewish Americans in World War II,” Alan Moskin an Army veteran, discussed his experience with anti-Semitism. Moskin hung up a picture of the basketball team he played on back home, that included Black players. Other service members wrote the most disgusting things about Jews and Black people by the photo. Moskin talked about how he thought he was with the good guys fighting the Nazis. For Moskin this experience was something he didn’t expect and called it “shameful.”

In July legendary singer Tony Bennett passed away, and The Washington Post published an article called, “Tony Bennett saw racism and horror in World War II. It changed him.” The article details Bennett’s time during World War II and the immediate aftermath. On Thanksgiving 1945, Bennett ran into an old friend, Frank Smith in Germany. The two friends spent the day together, with Bennett inviting Smith to join him for Thanksgiving dinner. They never made it to the table. An officer chastised Bennett and Smith for being together because Bennett was white and Smith, Black. Despicable, that two old friends, serving their country, couldn’t sit at the same table for Thanksgiving.

Bennett witnessed more discrimination in the military. “Our sergeant was an old-fashioned southern bigot, and he had it in for me right from the start because I was an Italian from New York City,” Bennett said regarding basic training. “I wasn’t the only one who experienced prejudice—it was just as bad for other ethnic groups, especially the Blacks and Jews.”

I can’t imagine what service members thought during World War II who were victims of discrimination. Fighting tyranny abroad and for equality back home must have been demoralizing. Stewart at 102, has seen his share of history.

During the past 102 years our country has achieved important civil rights victories: African Americans and Jews like Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin; General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. (currently President Joe Biden’s nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); General Norton A. Schwartz; and General David L. Goldfein have reached the highest levels in our military. However, there is still more work that needs to be done to achieve our country’s promise of equality. Our country owes a great deal of gratitude to our brave service members like Stewart, who served our country despite being treated like second class citizens.

Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.