Expanding the Circle of Honor on Veterans Day

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Expanding the Circle of Honor on Veterans Day

Civil rights veterans have undoubtedly played a critical role in defining and defending our liberty and expanding American democracy, often at tremendous sacrifice.

Civil rights campaigners marching in Alabama in the summer of 1964. (Source: Wikimedia Commons / public domain)

On this Veterans Day, I’d like to make a modest proposal that we expand the circle of honor in our society beyond military veterans to include veterans of the 1960s black freedom movement.  As a scholar of the civil rights era, I have had the privilege to meet, hear, speak with and study hundreds of participants in the historic struggle for racial justice in the United States.  In addition to their usual grace, dignity, patriotism and abiding commitment to our nation’s most cherished ideals, I have been consistently struck by a more troubling undercurrent in their testimony:  large numbers of them suffer from the same types of physical and mental trauma, as well as personal and economic challenge, that face many of our military veterans.  

Like members of the armed services, civil rights survivors have lost friends and comrades on the field of battle, at the hands of hostile foes.  They endured physical and sexual violence, psychological deprivation, false imprisonment and even torture.  As Maggie Koerth-Baker and Keno Evol have noted, movement participants often “lived under chronic and acute stress.”  These American heroes carry with them the physical and mental scars of their service and sacrifice to nation.  As it is with military personnel, the legacy of trauma is real for civil rights veterans.  

"This modest proposal is not offered to diminish the honor of our military veterans, but rather to expand the ranks of that public respect to include other, no less deserving, members of our society."

Many suffer from post-traumatic stress, which, in some cases has affected personal relationships, the ability to secure and maintain employment, housing, or the benefits and security that comes with those things.  Some have struggled with chronic pain, insomnia, isolation, addiction, homelessness and mental illness.  For instance, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9, has spoken about the depression and post-traumatic stress that plagued her in the wake of the taunting, bullying and threats she experienced during the late-1950s.  Similarly, Joan Browning, one of the Freedom Riders, has dealt with paralyzing panic attacks and other trauma-related symptoms traced back to the abuse and intimidation she faced as a movement participant.  She has eked out a basic existence over the years, but worries if her modest, personally funded nest-egg will carry her through old age.  And there are countless other stories that might be shared.

Unlike military vets, many civil rights veterans do not qualify for the generous public assistance available through the G. I. Bill and a host of other tax-funded programs offered to members of the armed services.  As civil rights vets move through their 60s, 70s and 80s, the accumulated impact of the traumatic legacy of their service and the particular vulnerability many of them face without health care, pensions, or access to other important services, can be debilitating and wreak havoc on their lives.  This is a shameful and unnecessary circumstance in a nation with such vast wealth, that claims to honor the achievement of that era.

Yet, while anecdotal evidence of trauma is pervasive within movement circles, researchers have hardly studied the topic in any systematic way, nor have policy-makers expressed much interest in stepping up to offer the same kinds of protections and supports accessible to military veterans.  At the 40th anniversary conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Raleigh, back in 2000, some members discussed establishing a “Walking Wounded” project to address the ongoing issues many civil rights survivors continue to deal with so many years later.  In a “concept paper,” they laid out a vision of the kinds of services they would like to see provided to civil rights movement veterans:  “(a) physical and mental health, including hospitalization if required; drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation might be necessary in some cases; (b) housing, either with a supportive family, with sympathetic individuals (including other Movement veterans who might be in the area) or more institutional housing (half-way houses, etc.) (c) spiritual renewal and restoration; (d) employment and/or income; (e) educational or vocational training; (f) other as required according to the individual circumstance of a particular person.” This plan might offer a basic blueprint for public policy-makers to think constructively and concretely about how to aid civil rights veterans for their service. 

This modest proposal is not offered to diminish the honor of our military veterans, but rather to expand the ranks of that public respect to include other, no less deserving, members of our society.  Civil rights veterans have undoubtedly played a critical role in defining and defending our liberty and expanding American democracy, often at tremendous sacrifice.  They have helped our nation live more fully into the abstract values it has long claimed, but not always met.  We can and must do better by them.

Patrick D. Jones

Patrick D. Jones is an Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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