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A Memorial Day apology

A Memorial Day apology
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Since its inception with ceremonies in the 1880s and its official institution in 1971, Memorial Day has been set aside as a day of commemoration and gratitude for the men and women who risked and gave their lives to protect and preserve our nation. This year, sadly, one more element of this commemoration should be included: an apology.

Throughout the decades, the widows, children, parents and comrades of our fallen soldiers have brought flags and flowers to their graves, quietly communing with them and expressing their love. But today some people would say that their family members died for a country with racism in its “DNA,” while enjoying the very freedom of expression those men and women died to protect. We owe those family members and their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice an apology.

As a 17-year-old high school dropout who lost his father at a young age, joining the Air Force was the best decision I ever made. Serving in the Armed Forces shaped me into a skilled, proud, self-disciplined young man. It took me beyond my neighborhood, where I’d had limited exposure to what was possible in life, and gave me a chance to see the world. My commanding officers honed in immediately on my math ability, and I was given opportunities to be challenged, develop and grow. After completing my service, I was able to go on to get a bachelor’s degree from Cheyney University and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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I am far from the only person who has benefited greatly from the opportunity to serve our country in the military. Bestselling author J.D. Vance, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking a few weeks ago, details in his memoir how serving the Marines was a vital part of his journey from a working-class upbringing with some significant challenges to graduating from Yale Law School.

The road to making the military a truly integrated American institution was a rocky one, of course. Units remained segregated for years and Blacks didn’t initially receive the same pay as whites for the same work. But today, the United States military is still one of our most trusted institutions — despite a steady stream of anti-American propaganda in our very homeland — and it remains a solid path to the middle class for Americans of all races, but especially Black men.

But this trust is fragile, and unfortunately in decline, which is why the current mantras repeated in classrooms across the country that America is a fundamentally racist nation are so incredibly dangerous. No service member is naïve enough to believe our country — or any country, for that matter — is perfect. But why would anyone want to put his or her life on the line for a nation that is rotten at the core? And when such men and women do make the ultimate sacrifice, what message do such claims send to those they leave behind?

I hope it will comfort the loved ones of the service members who gave their lives — and inspire a new generation to join their commitment to protect and preserve our nation — to know that a powerful alliance has risen to counter this false narrative. 

Today, the nationwide network of scholars and grassroots leaders of the Woodson Center and its 1776 Unites movement are uniquely positioned to defend our nation’s founding values and present real solutions to our problems. Their accounts of resilience and achievement against the odds throughout history — as well as contemporary examples of community and individual uplift and success across race and class lines — bring a message of hope, unity and mutual prosperity.

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These champions of self-determination and liberation include grassroots leaders who have freed thousands of lives from addiction and devastating life choices; determined men and women who have guided ex-offenders to productive and fulfilling lives; and a nationwide network of mothers who have lost children to homicide and have joined in an effort to promote safety and security in our neighborhoods through collaborative efforts with law enforcement. All of these servant-leaders speak with the moral authority of personal experience and unwavering commitment to their missions and the future of this country.

On this Memorial Day, to those who gave their last full measure of devotion to our nation, we say “Thank you” and may you truly rest in peace.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center and founder of 1776 Unites. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.