Open admission. I am about to share American experiences typically reserved for the privacy of the kitchen table, kept off the record, discussed just between “us.”
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which ordered the desegregation of the U.S. Navy. Earnest McCain’s service to his country began at the mid-point of World War II. The war ended 3 years before he’d experience a desegregated Navy and 20 years before he’d have the right to vote. Primarily motivated to escape the racial hostility and lack of opportunity in Anniston, Alabama, he achieved the non-commissioned rank of Chief Petty Officer.
One hot summer day in 1973, my single parent mother, perhaps needing relief from feeding me, called me in from running in the fields of Wakefield, Virginia, to let me know Earnest McCain was my father. She was sending me away to spend 2 weeks with him. He arrived driving a beautiful Chevrolet Bel Air. In my “high water” pants and hole-spattered t-shirt, I felt ashamed as he stepped out and onto our dry dirt driveway in bright dress whites. Hours later, we were in his quaint home of standard issue for military families of his generation. Soldiers were some of the first black Americans to achieve home ownership. Wasn’t long after being there that he left to get something for us to eat. I was alone and fascinated by the military photos, trinkets and the private bedroom of a single man. I explored the bottom right drawer of his dresser. Lifting some neatly folded undershirts, I found a general officer’s handgun. Under the gun, I found a few human teeth kept by my father from combat he saw while overseas.
He arrived home later and noticed the drawer was ajar. Instead of an expected whipping, I got a lesson about war, race and coping. My father’s physical wounds eventually lead to his death, but it was the mental wounds he survived that most impressed me. Despite the Jim Crow-era segregation he experienced, he had reverence for his time spent training white men who would command him. Now a civil servant working on Norfolk Naval Base, he demanded I respect sailors, or “squids” of all races. My father’s demeanor and pride as an American showed through great pain.
KKK roadblocks while attempting to go to work at a local plant were a frequent experience for the ladies in my mother’s vanpool. She eventually had to quit that job. They won. She went back home. As a boy I watched her hold white people’s children close to her breast in between paid housecleaning chores. Yet my mother demanded I learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” A photo of John F. Kennedy adorned a paneled wall next to my paint-by-numbers Jesus Christ. She’d eventually support my interest in Boy Scouts and encourage my civic engagement as a teen. Her fear of racism worried her as my curiosities and talents exposed me to white people. Through all of her tears, fears and hardships, my mother showed reverence and respect for America. I never asked if she loved America, but it seemed so.
As I grew into my late teens, I heard many black Americans complain about an imperfect America. In college I met black Americans who only pretended to recite the American pledge. When I saw foreign flags hung on a dorm room wall, I enjoyed learning about a fellow student’s country and took no offense at their lack of knowledge about American traditions. I assumed they would go back to their country upon graduation. But it bothered me that anger, resentment and hurt secretly festered in the hearts and minds of fellow black Americans I met. My empathy for that angst and my own experiences led me to become a social justice advocate.
To the chagrin of many readers who see me as a Republican leader, I’ve already spoken out against President Donald Trump’s inappropriate Tweet in an AJC interview last Tuesday. But it is through the lens of an American that I can relate to the President’s frustration with immigrants who seem to want to deconstruct today’s more-welcoming America.
Somalian refugee and now Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was rescued by America, yet her hostility is as though America has treated her worse than it treated my parents. I challenge all of us, Omar and Trump, to lead with love of country as we serve. I implore you and others to go examine the respect shown by people like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the flag. My American-born parents made a way for you. Go back to their example as your guide for a better and more civil America.
Leo Smith is a native of Smyrna, Georgia and a former GOP executive. His commentary often be heard on GPB’s Political Rewind and at leojsmith.com.
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