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Pots & pans: Troops of color gave their lives for America

Remember their sacrifice by fighting for our rights here in America

My cousin Harry’s name is written on a wall in Washington. He didn’t write his name himself. In 1968, his name was written by artillery, mortar and rocket fire that claimed his life in Vietnam. He was 19 and weeks into his tour of duty.

He will always be 19. And his name will stand at attention on a wall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a long black-and-granite line into eternity. His name will stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other names, representing a tapestry of our Vietnam War dead who were born everywhere from sagging small towns to splintering big cities.

When I close my eyes, I can see Harry’s face, black and proud, black and beautiful. When I close my eyes, I can see him dance to the music. When I close my eyes, I can see his little brother Levi, a Marine, standing straight and tall, saluting his big brother’s casket, the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

Years later, Harry’s mother told me that her oldest son had enlisted in the service. She remembered her son explaining that the government was going to draft him anyway.

For whatever reason or circumstance, black people have long fought in America’s wars. And some have died, giving what Abraham Lincoln called the fighting man’s last full measure of devotion.

Black troops fought America’s War of American Independence, though many were not free from slavery. More recently, black troops have fought and died in America’s war against foreign terrorism, though at home, the nation has failed to free itself from the chains of anti-black racism.

Next week, as we celebrate another Memorial Day with beer, beaches and barbecues, let’s remember the sacrifices of our troops fallen in war. Let’s hail them with our prayers. Let’s place flowers at their graves. Let’s give poetic, powerful and patriotic speeches.

But let’s remember that those gestures, heartfelt though they might be, fall far short of our responsibilities to generations of past war dead and the nation’s future.

We, too, can fight for America, fight for America’s highest ideals and principles, the America promised in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. We can fight in the classrooms. We can fight from the picket lines. We can fight to gain access to voting booths.

Let’s salute the military men and women who died in service to America, especially in war, by joining the fight to make our country a better place to live in peacetime.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.