Amos Pierce, American Hero
Charlottesville, Virginia, will no longer celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as an official city holiday and instead will observe a day recognizing the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.
The city council voted Monday night to scrap the decades-old April 13 holiday honoring the slave-holding president and Founding Father. Charlottesville will now mark Liberation and Freedom Day on March 3, the day U.S. Army forces arrived in the city in 1865.
When they came after symbols of the Confederacy — a move I generally supported — some on the Right said, “You think they’re going to stop there? The Founders are next.” And now that is coming true — in the city that has long been synonymous with Jefferson!
Until now, we Americans have been able to celebrate Jefferson and his legacy, despite his slave-owning, because we recognized that the profound moral flaws of this great man do not obviate the facts of his world-historical accomplishment as an architect of the American republic. Even though I personally have some reservations about that founding, and the arch-rationalist Jefferson’s role in it, there can be no doubt of his greatness, and the pietas that all American patriots owe to his memory. Jefferson was great in spite of holding slaves. What he achieved laid the groundwork, in later generations, for the emancipation of slaves, and for a more just union — a task that remains for every generation of Americans, for as long as there is an America.
But now even Jefferson is becoming a villain. Jefferson! And worse, in his own town.
This happened on the same week that Nike withdrew a Colonial-era flag-themed sneaker because Woke superstar Colin Kaepernick said it reminded him of slavery. It’s pretty clear what’s coming: that to be on the Right Side Of History™, we are all going to have to despise the American founding and its founders. Meantime, almost all the Democratic Party’s presidential contenders have declared themselves de facto to be for open borders. It’s politically insane. They’re just handing all this stuff to Donald Trump.
I can hear the squawking from liberals now: How can you blame the entire Left for this? How can you actually believe that a corporation’s decision about a shoe, and a city council’s decision about a local holiday, matters? Nike has a right to do what it did, and so does the Charlottesville city council! Anyway, what about this terrible thing Trump did, and this one, and the other one? Et cetera.
I have to chuckle. This is profoundly ignorant of how ordinary people think. Don’t you people get it? Little things like this are part of a developing narrative, one that emerges from the actions of people like campus activists, media and academic figures, city councils, and Woke Capitalists in corporate boardrooms. The narrative is this: the American nation is illegitimate, the American nation is wicked at its roots, America is loathsome. If we are going to dissolve this old, bad America, and replace it with something better, then we are going to need to start by teaching her people to hate her through and through. Meanwhile, let’s open the borders to let in a better class of future American.
Attacking figures like Jefferson, and symbols like the Colonial-era flag — again, not the Confederate flag, but a Colonial-era flag — make it clear that what’s under assault now by the Social Justice Warriors — not fringe campus hotheads, but institutionalists like senior corporate executives and city council members — is the symbolic core of America herself. Not Southern secessionists who fought to preserve slavery, but the Founders and the Founding. These symbols are as close as the secular realm gets to sacred. Elementary psychology says that you do not profane what is sacred to a tribe, unless you want war.
Politics today are primarily identity politics. That’s just a fact. You can’t be indifferent to the power of symbolism and identity. There is not a Central Committee for Left-Liberalism in America that decided the Colonial-era American flag was to be spited. But it happened this week, in accordance with the wishes of a crusading left-wing celebrity. And not a single leading politician of the Democratic Party spoke up against it. Maybe they and their handlers didn’t think it was worth mentioning. Boy, are they wrong. I know conservatives who went out this week and bought version of that “Betsy Ross flag” to fly today, to affirm pride in the Founding in the face of Woke Corporate assault (and by the way, conservatives: if you aren’t learning to despise Big Business, it’s time to start paying attention). In this way, the Left is handing over to Donald Trump what ought to be a symbol of American unity and pride in country.
It’s crazy to think about, but here we are: America is led now by an irritable, unstable, incompetent, corrupt narcissist, a man of many deep faults — but at least he doesn’t hate his country, its history, its ancestral religion and its traditions, and at least he doesn’t want to open the borders to allow a wave of foreigners to remake it.
This is how the Left is going to fire up those who already support Trump, and drive many who can’t stand him to vote for him anyway, solely to protect the country from the party and the people who despise what she is.
I hate that America is going this way, and that the fashionable Left is handing old-fashioned patriotism over to the Right, and to Donald Trump. Because I’m a patriot, or try to be, I don’t want this for my country. I want Left and Right to be able to have our arguments, but to do so as Americans.
What this country needs right now is the voice of Amos Pierce.
He’s the 94-year-old father of the African-American actor Wendell Pierce. He’s a decorated veteran of World War II, and to my mind, one of the greatest living Americans. Why one of the greatest? Read this passage from Wendell’s great memoir The Wind In The Reeds to discover who Amos Pierce is, and what he means to his son, and to this country. I’m getting tears in my eyes now just thinking about that dear man. No kidding, whenever I get down on my country, I always think about Mr. Amos, and how he had to suffer so much from this country under segregation, but how he never, ever stopped loving her. In this excerpt from the book, Wendell is talking about a WWII-era campaign to encourage black Americans to support the war effort:
Black newspapers around the country took up the cause and carried its banner throughout the war years. Of course the promise of the Double V Campaign was only half fulfilled. America won the war for democracy abroad, but refused to embrace it and prosecute it at home. Yet African Americans did not give up hope. They still believed in America, and wanted white Americans to believe in her too. The same faith in this nation’s promise would animate the civil rights movement. In 1957, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would give a Christmas sermon in which he paid respect to the Double V Campaign, using the same rhetoric that would ultimately prevail in the war for the hearts and minds of America and its future:
Do to us what you will and we will still love you . . . . Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
In Dr. King’s soaring words, I can hear the testimony of my family. Burn our cars to teach us a lesson, nearly lynch our men for loving your women, piss on our children in church, steal our money and our right to vote, throw our broken bodies into an unmarked plantation grave, send us to a foreign land to fight and die for you, but deny us the medals we earned sacrificing for this nation—and we will not stop loving America. But we will win our freedom with a victory against the enemies—from within.
This was not sentimentality for my father. This was reality. I’ll never forget the lesson he taught me as a boy, the night he took me to a boxing match at the Municipal Auditorium. Daddy hates cigarette smoking, but he wanted to see the fights, so he sat miserably with my brother and me in the uppermost part of the bleachers, surrounded by a billowing cloud of smoke, waiting for the matches to begin. This was the late sixties or early seventies, when the Black Power movement was in full swing. That ethos demanded that when the national anthem was played, black people protested by refusing to stand in respect.
That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”
“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.
“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”
Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.
That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your fucking teeth.”
The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.
Like my father, my uncle L. H. Edwards fought for the American flag—his war was Vietnam—and came home to face discrimination as well. Uncle L.H. was a far angrier and a politically more extreme man than my father, but no matter how mad he was at what America had done to him and his people, his faith in America’s ideals and his loyalty to that flag did not waver. Like his son Louis says, “My father might have put on a dashiki, but he was going to wear it while he waved that flag.”
“You have to understand, my father was an officer,” Louis says. “He was so proud of that. He believed that there was no military in this world greater than the U.S. military, and you had better speak to him with respect because of it. He might have sung the black national anthem, but he wasn’t going to fly the flag of any African country, or any other nation but our own.”
Amos Pierce had been awarded some medals for his World War II service in the Pacific. But when he was discharged stateside, a white officer processing his discharge said that the documentation must be a lie, because no nigger could have won those medals. Amos Pierce carried the burden of that grievous insult back into civilian life with him. He never told his sons about it, in part because he did not want them to grow up despising the country that had done their father such an injustice.
Wendell found out only in the 2000s about his father having been cheated out of medals by a racist white officer. Here, from The Wind In The Reeds, he picks up the story of how he, as a son, worked to right that wrong:
Those brave black soldiers, Amos Pierce and L.H. Edwards, taught me about true patriotism. This land was their land, too. It was made for them, same as everybody else. They never forgot it, and they weren’t going to let their fellow Americans forget it. Their patriotism said, “America is a great country, but we’re going to keep fighting to make it greater.”
In 2009, I did my small part in this long struggle to make our country a more perfect union when I contacted WWL-TV reporter Bill Capo in New Orleans and asked him to help me get Daddy his medals. I couldn’t let that injustice stand, not after all Amos Pierce had done for me and for his country. I explained what happened and Bill started looking into it. He contacted U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a fellow New Orleanian, who put her staff to work researching the issue.
What they found is that Corporal Pierce had not been awarded two medals, as he believed, but rather six of them. There was a Bronze Service Star, an Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal, a World War II Victory medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, and a Good Conduct medal, along with an honorable service lapel pin.
Working with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, we arranged a special ceremony on Armed Forces Day, 2009, to present my father, then eighty-four, with his country’s thanks and honors. True, they were half a century late, but it’s never too late to do the right thing.
Major General Hunt Downer of the Louisiana National Guard spoke warmly of my father, telling the audience that we must never forget the debt of gratitude we owe to the Greatest Generation. Museum board president Gordon “Nick” Mueller added, “We would not have won World War II without the African Americans, the Native Americans, the Hispanics, the Japanese Americans.”
My brother Ron rose to speak, fighting back tears. He told the audience that our father “truly believed in the American dream, and he bought into it. And when he would tell us that we could do anything, he wasn’t just spouting words, he meant it.” (Ron said later that the event was surreal for him. “Here I was in the presence of a real-life American war hero, and it was my father—and I had no idea about it.”)
When my turn came to speak, I was as emotional as Ron was. My heart was bursting with love and pride in Daddy and all his comrades in arms. “It’s a great honor to stand here today,” I said. “But it’s not just for us. It is for all the men and women who couldn’t live to see this honor, and receive the honors they received, but still had love and faith for this great nation.”
Tee stood with us, at Daddy’s side. I hoped that my oldest brother, Stacey, who had died of heart disease a decade earlier, could in some way share that moment of triumph with our family.
Then it was time to give Daddy his medals. His face beaming, Daddy made his way with his walker to the stage. I stood at his side, holding the six medals in my hand, while Ron pinned them on the left breast of Daddy’s pin-striped suit. Tee looked on, cradling the box the medals came in.
Later on, his chest laden with colorful ribbons and bronze medals, Daddy told WWL-TV that he felt like General MacArthur. For us, it was enough that he was U.S. Army Corporal Amos Pierce, Jr., war hero. His family had always known it, but now the whole world did. America had finally lived up to the promises it made to a young black man who crossed the ocean and walked through fire and thunder for her. America had finally kept faith with an old black man who, despite everything, had taught his sons to believe in this great nation.
Whenever I hear people say, “So many people died for our freedom,” I say yes, you’re right—but I’m not thinking of battlefields alone. I’m also thinking of bayous and creeks and rivers where so many African Americans died, or endured the murders of their beloved husbands, sons, and fathers, at the hands of their fellow Americans who would never answer for their crimes in a court of law. And I’m thinking of the busy city streets and the lonesome country roads where so many black folk risked their lives—and in some cases, gave their lives—for the cause of liberty and justice for all Americans. There is blood on the ballot box, and it is the blood of black soldiers who fought for America—whether or not they ever wore the uniform.
They loved the country that persecuted them and treated them like the enemy. To me, that is a vision of supreme patriotism. It’s like my father always said to my brothers and me, every time we would see a triumph of American ideals: “See, that’s why I fought for that flag!”
Amos Pierce never stopped fighting for that flag, and never stopped loving it, either. On the day he finally received his medals, he said nothing at the formal ceremony, but at the gala afterward, he decided that he wanted to offer a few words to the crowd.
He hobbled over to the microphone and, despite his hearing loss, spoke with ringing clarity.
“I want you all to remember those who didn’t come back, I want to dedicate this night to them,” he said. “So many who fought didn’t even have a chance to live their lives. I was given that chance, as difficult as my life has been.”
Daddy thanked the audience for the honor, saying he was not bitter for having been denied the medals for so long. He was simply grateful to have them now.
“We’ve come so far as a country,” he continued. “I’ve realized now a lot of what we were fighting for.”
And then he paused. It took all of his strength to stand as erect as possible at the podium. He saluted crisply, and said, “God bless America.”
That’s when I lost it. For someone not to be debilitated by pain and anger and embarrassment after all he had been through; who fought for this country when this country didn’t love him and wouldn’t fight for him; to come back from war and still have to fight for the right to vote and the right to go into any establishment he wanted to—that made me think of the vow he made to me as a child: “No matter what, son, I will never abandon you.”
I have never known a greater man than that old soldier on the night he received his due.
That. Is. Greatness. I read that story from Wendell’s book to my own father, as he lay on his deathbed. I couldn’t get through it without choking up. I looked up at my dad to apologize, and saw that he was crying too.
Because we are all family — an American family.
On this Fourth Of July, I choose to remember Amos Pierce as a great American, and an example of supreme patriotism. Whatever happens in the political realm, I hope the Democratic Party, and American left-liberals in general, will claim, or re-claim, the patriotism of men like Amos Pierce. We need that. We desperately need that. As I said, when I myself despair of this country, and the way that it’s going, I think of the towering example of Amos Pierce, and his faith in the American dream. When I saw Wendell a couple of weeks ago in London, where he’s starring in a revival of Death Of A Salesman, the hottest theater ticket in the city, we talked about his dad, who still lives in the modest New Orleans brick house he bought in the 1950s, and where he raised his boys.
I strongly urge you to read The Wind In The Reeds. It’s a memoir of an American family, their struggles, and their triumphs. It’s not a sentimental book by any stretch, and the pain that the family had to endure under Jim Crow will break your heart and boil your blood. In the end, though, this book will make you proud to be an American, and teach you about why the story of black people in America is, and must be, our story, collectively, as Americans.
It is a tragedy — seriously — that the loudest and most influential voices on the American Left today don’t even know about men like Amos Pierce, and allow his story, and the testimony of his patriotism, to fall by the wayside. Democrats are not going to defeat draft-dodging Donald Trump with Colin Kaepernick, a snowflake superstar athlete who can’t bear the horror of a sneaker with a Colonial flag on the heel. They are going to defeat Donald Trump with Amos Pierce, a man who fought a real war for a country that treated him like a second-class citizen, and tried to shame him when he came home … but who never gave up believing in her, and her promise. Could you do what Amos Pierce did? I couldn’t. He is a great man, a patriot that we should all admire.
And he is a Democrat. More than that, Amos Pierce is an American. Think of him, and pray for him, on this Fourth of July. We need him. We really do.
Watch this clip from the PBS News Hour four years back to meet Amos Pierce, via his son Wendell:
I’ll be traveling to Poland later today, folks, but I’ll be approving comments as I can, from the Atlanta airport, and then when I get to Warsaw. God bless America, and God bless you!
Six years ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second term under five immense American flags, including the circular 13-star variety of Betsy Ross’s famous design. But Colin Kaepernick objected when Nike, the company that pays him millions per year to be a brand ambassador, emblazoned the flag on the back of a shoe, on the view that it was connected to the era of American slavery, sources told The Wall Street Journal. Nike capitulated almost immediately.
The story has resonated widely not because it’s outrageous, but because it’s predictable. It’s a similar story with Mayim Bialik’s cringing apology for her alleged “victim-blaming” in the Harvey Weinstein saga, or Adidas pulling a sneaker it had designed for Black History Month because it was white, or the firing of Google engineer James Damore because he wrote a memo that offended corporate orthodoxies.
If the House of York had fallen to the Lancastrians as quickly as corporate and academic America has capitulated to Woke culture, the War of the Roses would have been over in a week.
I’m writing this column on the eve of July 4. But the country I’m describing each year seems to feel the spirit of 1776 less and the spirit of 1789 more. “Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”
Read the column — it features a photo of Obama giving his Second Inaugural address, under the Betsy Ross flag. Now many on the Left think that flag is intolerably racist.