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

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Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement by Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish is published by Texas A & M University Press.

The heart of this true story reads like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.  The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Below decks on one of the U. S. ships is a cook named Doris Miller.  An African-American from Texas and the grandson of slaves, he knew the struggles of poverty and difficulties of life for blacks at that time.  The navy offered him a chance to improve his lot in life.  But that path was also strewn with boulders.  Blacks were relegated to service tasks such as cooking and other less prominent roles.  Then outside the bombs start dropping.  This was no time to be serving up bacon and eggs.

Miller rushed about the deck and went to a dying officer and sought to help him.  Then, noticing the Japanese planes flying about and seeing a machine gun unmanned, Miller ran over and began firing.  Maybe he actually shot down several Japanese planes, or maybe he was just doing the best anyone could.  Funny thing though, Miller had never been given any training in firing such a weapon.  His training was in the realm of pots and pans.  But he rose to the occasion.

Miller himself looked like someone out of central casting.  Big, handsome, strong, solemn, he was every inch the hero.  We hear the phrase, “actions above and beyond the call of duty,” but that doesn’t go far enough.  I suspect Miller didn’t view his actions as being above or beyond his duty or even see it as courageous.  He did what he was supposed to do.

We always need heroes, and Miller was such a man.  In the Paul Harvey vein of “the rest of the story,” I would like to think that Miller rose through the ranks, enjoyed marriage, family, and a successful career in the post-war years, and helped changed the face of America.  Only the last part is true.  He died in action some two years later, still serving in the navy, still protecting America.  Obviously, he was not alone in dying for his country, nor was he the only African-American who served and gave the greatest sacrifice.  Posthumous honors and awards seem empty in a way, but they are vital for those who survive.

In his time, Miller received the Navy Cross, which is the third highest naval award for combat gallantry.  In the years that followed his feats at Pearl Harbor and his death, people in the African-American community along with some Congressional leaders lobbied for Miller to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Skin tone though still ruled the day, and Miller never achieved this award.

Perhaps it seems odd to call up a quote from Robert E. Lee in this context, but the quote is fitting.  Lee said,

“The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”

Of course, many in the Civil Rights Movement found that passively waiting for change was not getting results.  Hence, we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech where he repeated the refrain, “How long?  Too long.”  But the 1940s were not the 1960s, and without men like Doris Miller, the 1960s could not have accomplished what they did.

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Miller’s life is just part of this really short book of some 102 pages of text.  Much of the story is the role he played in changing an unchangeable attitude toward blacks in the military and the rest of society.  The story reveals some sad features in our history.  Frank Knox was the Secretary of War, and Knox was a blockhead when it came to race.  We have to judge past leaders with sympathy, but it is hard to see how narrow his vision and understanding were.  (It is here that history, as Lee said, does teach us to hope.)

There was one statement in the book that shook me considerably.  Miller’s actions and the call to war led to lots of efforts to recruit blacks into military service (even if they were being used for the more menial positions).  While black America, like the Native Americans, looked past mistreatments of the past and signed up to serve, there were some resistance and negative views.  The authors write, “One Cincinnati cleaning woman declared that it did not matter to her if Hitler won the war. ‘It couldn’t be any worse for colored people…It ain’t so good now.'” (page 33)

At first that statement made me mad.  How could she say such a thing?  Then I had to calm and think about this some.  She was not speaking as a history teacher looking back over both the evils of the Third Reich and the progress of racial matters.  Yes, historically speaking, she was wrong.  But she was speaking out of a life of bad experiences.

I don’t believe in repenting of other people’s sins, but I do believe in recognizing sins of the past.  I wish history was a real corrective to social problems, and I wish that people “learned the lessons from history” (whatever that means).  I do think that it is instructive to both mind and soul to read books like this and to be both motivated over the heroism of Doris Smith and be made sorrowful over the racial attitudes of the past.  This is a good read–good for mind and soul.

Post Script:  Doris Smith was often called Dorie.  How and why he got saddled with a girl’s name, no one knows.  He was a big tough guy (football player, baseball player, and boxer), so you can bet I would not have dared snicker at his girly name.  He loved his family, and upon surviving Pearl Harbor, he told a reporter, “It must have been God’s strength and mother’s blessing.”

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Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller.

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