By Joseph Sebarenzi, Ph.D.
This month, we celebrate the contributions of African-Americans to our nation- including the millions of African-American soldiers who courageously served in the United States military from the Civil War up to the present war against terrorism. But in a speech I gave last week in Washington, D.C., I chose to highlight the contributions of both African-Americans fighting with guns to achieve peace and also those who fought against segregation and racism with the powerful weapons of nonviolent resistance.
War isn’t an easy subject for me to write about; I’m a Rwandan refugee who lost my parents, brothers, and sisters in the terrible genocide of 1994. But war and conflict have shaped my life and the lives of millions of other African-Americans since the founding of the United States. The Civil War saw nearly 180,000 African-Americans fighting for the Union Army alone. Despite shockingly subpar treatment, these segregated divisions played a critical role in forty major battles to help the Union attain victory.
When the United States joined World War I, over 200,000 African-American soldiers joined up to serve, with 40,000 directly involved in combat in the European theatre. Less known is that Africa was also a battlefield during WWI, which is where my story- and Rwanda’s- begins. Rwanda was part of German East Africa, along with Burundi and the mainland part of Tanzania; Rwandan soldiers fought alongside German troops against Allied forces. Following the Axis defeat, the spoils of war were redistributed among the victors. Belgium seized control of Rwanda. Believing that the minority Tutsi population was racially superior to the majority Hutu, Belgian authorities refused to work with the Hutu and excluded them from government positions- setting the stage for decades of interethnic violence that culminated in Africa’s worst genocide.
By World War II, African-Americans comprised a significant part of America’s military, with 1.2 million proudly serving the Allied cause despite discrimination, segregated units, and inferior facilities. Units such as the Tuskegee Airmen and 761st Tank Battalion famously performed with distinction. Following the desegregation of the military in 1948, African-Americans began rising to higher positions in the armed forces. 10% of Vietnam War soldiers were African-American, leading retired U.S. Army Colonel William DeShields to remark, “The Vietnam War was the one war in which blacks did it all. They were the generals, they were the leaders. . . they did it all and they did it well.” African-American soldiers served during the Gulf War, led by high-ranking African-American commanders such as General Colin Powell, and have continued to serve in the war against terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places.
But African-Americans haven’t always just fought with bombs and guns. During the Civil Rights movement, they fought against injustice and prejudice with nonviolent resistance and peaceful protests. Inspired by dynamic leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, African-Americans staged sit-ins and boycotts to achieve equal rights without the bloodshed of war. The Civil Rights movement attained what traditional weapons could not: equal opportunity in housing, education, and employment, as well as the right to vote and use public facilities. As an American of color, I am a direct beneficiary of that struggle, and I look to the heroes of the Civil Rights movement for inspiration as I reflect on the vast and diverse contributions of African-Americans to this country. So many have fought, at home and abroad; this African American History Month, we remember those who strove to make our world a better place.