Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement–a Preview

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Events in history never really begin when we say they did.  History is taught by a series of simplifications.  So, Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the Roman Empire fell in 576, and the American Civil War began in 1861.  These simplifications are necessary to get some footing in the events of history.  But every beginning movement, every date attached to a turning point, has deep lying roots in a number of other events that are often anywhere from slightly known to totally unknown.

Case in point, we often associate the Civil Rights Movement in America with events going on in the 1960’s. Then to give a bit more historical context and foundation to the events, references are made to happenings in the 1950’s such as the case of the Little Rock Nine.  Or one might bring up President Truman’s order to desegregate the army.  At any rate, before the key events that appear on the timeline in the textbook happened, there were forces, people, and ideas that were working to produce those special events when a movement “began.”

This is one part of what is attractive about the book Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement.  Co-authored by Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish, this new work is published by Texas A & M University Press.

Books like this are a part of the contribution of university presses and university scholarship to the broader community.  I first heard of this book last October when I had the occasion to meet Dr. Cutrer.  He referred to himself as a retired history professor and casually mentioned that he was doing some writing.  He mentioned the publication of Theater of a Separate War and then this book.  My thought, after decades of teaching history, was “Doris Miller?  Who is she?”

Let’s begin with who Doris Miller was.  On the morning of December 7, 1941, after serving breakfast and starting to work on laundry on the USS West Virginia, Ship’s Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller heard the alarm calling sailors to battle stations.  Pearl Harbor was under attack from the Japanese.  After trying to help the mortally wounded ship’s captain, Miller was soon involved in loading and firing an anti-aircraft machine gun.  He continued firing at the Japanese aircraft until the ammunition ran out.  For this, he was awarded the Navy Cross, which is the third-highest naval award for combat gallantry.

But here is an even more interesting detail:  Doris Miller had never been trained to operate a machine gun.  He was, after all, an African American in a segregated military.  Two years later, he died on another ship in another part of the Second World War.

Lots of ideas current in his time suggested that blacks and whites could not successfully serve side by side in the military.  It was a very segregated world.  It is not as though the Doris Millers of World War II changed all that.  But it was cases like the story of this man, this hero to all Americans, that birthed the movement that did make major changes.

Side note:  Take notice fellow Texans, Doris Miller was from the Lone Star State.

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