On Thursday, Aug. 20, Darius Gray, his sister Sandra, his ninety-year-old cousin Russell, and I gathered with some filmmakers to record Russell’s memories of World War II.
Russell was in the segregated army, on the black side. On his ship, which headed to Guadalcanal and then to Iwo Jima on December 8th, 1941, Black soldiers occupied the under deck, which was perpetually flooded with vomit- and excrement-tainted water–up to six inches of it. The white soldiers occupied the upper decks; black soldiers were not allowed in that more privileged area. Once, the black troops were told that the ship carrying their food had been sunk, and so they went without for two weeks. The white soldiers, meanwhile, ate well. The officers, according to Russell, were all white Southerners. Why Southerners? Because, he said, somebody thought Southerners knew how to handle the “colored soldiers.”
Upon hitting the shore, the black soldiers were stripped of their ammunition–all but one clip. The bulk of amo was then given to the white soldiers.
“Why was that?” asked Darius.
“I think we were expendable,” said Russell.
One black soldier was trapped under a tank after a battle. “We could’ve got him out,” said Russell. “He was begging us to help him.” A white officer calmly shot the injured soldier in the head and pronounced: “He died in battle.”
Russell was on burial duty at Iwo Jima, and after a battle would dig trenches into which both Japanese and American bodies were thrown and then buried. At one point, he was allowed to come home for R&R. When he returned to the battlefield, he was told that his unit (all black) did not exist any longer. Every soldier in that “Colored” unit had been killed.
Russell has not wanted to talk about his war experiences since 1945. But over the past several years, he has insisted that it’s time. He needs to tell his story. As it happened, our cameraman was Japanese. “I don’t blame the Japanese,” said Russell. “I blame their ancestors. Folks today, they don’t know about any of what happened back then. And I don’t blame white people. It’s a new day. I blame their ancestors.”
I wondered how far back that blame would go. Surely it would extend even beyond the founders of the nation, who accommodated slavery and then accepted the common manipulations of scripture to to justify it. But blame is useful only insofar as it instructs us and leads us to become better.
As Darius and I prepare for _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_ to air on Utah’s KUED (Wed. Oct. 7th at 9:00 p.m. and Sunday Oct. 11 at 4:00 p.m.), we are aware of how various audiences might react. We suspect the response will be largely positive, but we realize that a few will object to our exhuming the racialist Mormon past at all. We are certainly not the only ones so engaged, however. As recently as last week, I heard from a missionary in the Congo that Elder Holland (who dedicated Cameroon on Aug. 20) had emphatically rebuked the idea that Blacks were fence-sitters in the pre-existence.
We know that the various justifications for the priesthood restriction (curses, lack of pre-mortal valiancy, etc.) still insinuate themselves into the study of true gospel doctrine. We know who said what in the past. And we know that we must forgive them and move on. Part of moving on, however, is bringing the untruths and hard stories into full view. But that’s only part. The rest involves healing–and asks all of us to apply a balm of good will, to mourn with those who still mourn, to listen to the stories of wounded warriors, to acknowledge that they suffered in the tainted water of inequality.
The glorious message of the gospel was given to the woman of Samaria, who met the Lord at a well. Jesus, already aware of her sin-spotted past, said to her, “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” All are invited to drink at that fountain. This includes former slaves and former slave owners; generals and common soldiers; male and female. And it includes any who have spoken ill of others–whether because of race, politics, or situation. All are invited to partake, and no one is expendable.
I am fully confident that we as a Church will go where we need to go, that past discriminatory statements will be vanquished by the light of Christ, and we will understand the full implications of President Hinckley’s rhetorical question in April 2006: “How can any man holding the Melchizedek priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for that priesthood, but that another, who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?”
I am impressed by words of Civil War General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, speaking of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox:
Regiments and brigades–or what is left of them–have scarce a score of arms to surrender; having thrown them away by road and riverside in weariness of flight or hopelessness of heart, disdaining to carry them longer but to disaster. And many a bare staff was there laid down, from which the ensign had been torn in the passion and struggle of emotions…to be treasured for precious keepsakes of manhood’s test and heirlooms for their children. Nor blame them too much for this; nor us for not blaming them more. Although, as we believed, fatally wrong in striking at the old flag, misreading its deeper meaning and the innermost law of the people’s life, blind to the signs of the times in the march of man, they fought as they were taught, true to such ideals as they saw, and put into their cause their best. For us they were fellow-soldiers as well, suffering the fate of arms. We could not look into those brave, bronzed faces and those battered flags we had met on so many fields where glorious manhood lent a glory to the earth that bore it, and think of personal hate and mean revenge. Whoever had misled these men, we had not. We had led them back home. Whoever had made that quarrel, we had not. It was a remnant of the inherited curse for sin. We had purged it away, with blood offerings. We were all of us together factors of that high will which, working often through illusions of the human, and following ideals that lead through storms, evolves the enfranchisement of man. Forgive us, therefore, if from stern, steadfast faces eyes dimmed with tears gazed at each other across that pile of storied relics so dearly there laid down, and brothers’ hands were fain to reach across that rushing tide of memories which divided us yet made us forever one.
(Chamberlain, Bayonet! Forward!, p. 158-9).