Skip to Content

The Eyes of the World Are Upon Some of Them: RaceAhead

Barrage Balloons over Normandy Beaches on D-dayBarrage Balloons over Normandy Beaches on D-day
Barrage balloons protect dozens of ships on the Normandy beaches as they offload the men, material, and munitions needed to expand the beachhead.Courtesy of The National Archives

President Trump, along with other world leaders and veterans of World War II, visited northern France to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The veterans are now mostly in their 90s and have long been a welcome part of a solemn duty: The importance of remembering.

“When veterans started coming back here years ago, local people used to turn out to hug and kiss them,” a representative of Normandy Chapters, an organization which arranges visits for personnel who served in the Normandy area during World War II told the Los Angeles Times. “The feeling for the American and Allied troops here remains strong, very strong.”

The invasion of Normandy was a brutal business, the largest seaside invasion in history. It was a bloodbath for the U.S., as wave after wave of soldiers sacrificed their lives, sometimes just seconds after hitting the beach, to push the German defenders back on their heels.

Ernie Pyle, one of the greatest war correspondents in U.S. history, was on the scene the next day. In the absence of Instagram and social reporting, his careful dispatch was the only way the folks back home knew how bad things had been. “The advantages were all theirs,” he began. “Four men on shore for every three men we had approaching the shore.”:

Submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings were strewn all over these bitter sands. That plus the bodies of soldiers lying in rows covered with blankets, the toes of their shoes sticking up in a line as though on drill. And other bodies, uncollected, still sprawling grotesquely in the sand or half hidden by the high grass beyond the beach.

Remembering is so important, which is why it’s important to remember everyone.

Though black men and women served throughout World War II, the only African American combat unit at D-Day was the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Their mission was to raise a barrier of balloons – mini-blimps, really – into the sky to protect the ships, troops, and supplies from the constant aerial attacks by German aircraft. As the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum notes, members of the 320th were among the first wave of troops to go ashore and were caught in the horror immediately. “Many of the balloons were shot up and destroyed before they could even be brought off the ships, and the soldiers of the 320th did what they could to survive.”

Eventually, they managed to deploy as many as 12 balloons by dawn on June 7. The steel cables they used to steer the balloons were a specific danger for dive-bombing planes, but the balloons backed a punch of their own.

“It was something like a canister bomb,” says William Garfield Dabney in this short but powerful video. “You’d pull the [balloon] right down into the wing of the [German] plane and BOOM it would blow up.”

As many as 2,000 African American troops landed on both Omaha and Utah beaches, but they appear in no Hollywood films or commemorative non-fiction pieces though, according to Linda Hervieux, the author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day Black Heroes, At Home and At War, you can see the balloons piloted by the men of the 320th in the distance in Saving Private Ryan.

Hervieux has become the historian of record for these troops and has been fighting valiantly every year for their recognition. (I do not say this lightly. If you have time, she breaks down the entire story in this extraordinary presentation at Claremont McKenna College in 2016.)

This year, she’s standing with Joann Woodson, the 90-year-old widow of Corporal Waverly “Woody” Woodson Jr., who was just a 21-year-old medic from West Philadelphia when he splashed his way onto Omaha Beach around 9 a.m. on June 6, 1944, only to be shot seconds later. From Hervieux’s latest essay:

Woodson was wounded, hit by burning shrapnel that raked his landing craft and ripped open his buttocks and thigh. The soldier next to him was killed. A medic slapped dressings on Woodson’s wounds, and they, along with three other medics in their crew, crept up the beach while crouched behind a tank. They were the first African-Americans to set their boots on Omaha Beach. For the next 30 hours, Woodson would survive German snipers and his own searing pain to save scores of lives. Decades later, Woodson would learn that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

He’s never gotten it, even as previous administrations sought to belatedly remedy the many racist snubs from World War II.

Here’s what the black WWII veterans of the segregated military did get: A set of New Deal entitlements that fully accommodated Jim Crow racism, and a society that was so viciously bigoted, it was known to lynch black veterans, sometimes in uniform.

It’s a complicated history to remember, I’ll grant you that. But it’s worth getting it all right.

The great Ernie Pyle was shot and killed by a Japanese machine-gunner almost a year after D-Day, as he reported the fighting on a tiny island near Okinawa. Less than three weeks later, the war in Europe ended.

On this important anniversary, I give Mr. Pyle the last word, along with my deep respect:

“In this column I want to tell you what the opening of the second front [of the D-Day invasion] in this one sector entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.”

On Point

YouTube finally announces ban on white supremacist videosIn an update to its (inconsistently enforced) hate speech rules, the platform announced it will prohibit “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.” YouTube has long been under criticism for its handling of harmful content, most recently, by Vox journalist Carlos Maza. Maza accused Steven Crowder, a YouTube personality, of targeting his sexual orientation. While YouTube originally stated Crowder wasn’t violating any policies, the platform backtracked on the decision, ultimately deciding to ban ads from Crowder’s channel. As Fortune’s Danielle Abril reports, YouTube’s recent ban is “a move that comes 14 years after the site’s inception and hundreds of millions of videos have been posted.” Last year, around 160,000 videos were flagged for hate speech or political extremism, Abril writes, but less than 30 percent were removed from the platform.Fortune

The Trump Organization gets $1 million from payday lenders
A recent ProPublica report details how payday lenders moved their last two annual conventions to a Trump hotel—soon after the Trump Administration scrapped an Obama-era regulation that was viewed as “a potential death sentence” for the industry. Payday lenders largely rely on repeat debt-burdened (and generally low-income) borrowers, who end up paying more in interest than what they actually borrowed. In what would have been a blow to the industry, the rule mandated payday lenders ensure borrowers could “pay back their loans while also covering basic living expenses,” ProPublica details. The two conventions, hosted by the Community Financial Services Association of America at the Trump National Doral Miami hotel, cost a combined $1 million.
ProPublica

A community rallies to save Cab Calloway’s boyhood home
Speaking of remembering, a planned demolition of jazz great Cab Calloway’s Baltimore home has generated enough public pushback that a stay of execution may be coming. The house, which is in complete disrepair, is scheduled for removal. A small group of community activists is arguing for the home’s historic value. “My position is: Once these homes are gone, they’re gone forever, and the city should really keep its options open and consider developing it into a tourist or commercial type of thing,” says Peter Brooks, who is Calloway’s grandson.
Baltimore Sun

Texas school district votes to fire teacher who reported undocumented students to President Trump
In a unanimous vote, The Fort Worth Independent School District voted 8-0 to terminate the employment of Georgia Clark, who had been tweeting the president that their school had been taken over” by “illegal students from Mexico,” and demanded that he act “on the promise that a wall would be built to protect our borders.” The English teacher said that she’d thought the tweets were direct messages and was surprised to learn they were public. She’d been in trouble before, you’ll not be surprised to learn. Some 88 percent of the students at her former school are Hispanic.
NBC News

On Background

We are here for the #KuToo era
KuToo is derived from the Japanese word for shoes, kutsu, and pain, kutsuu. Clever, right? It’s the branding behind a new campaign, launched first by actor and freelance writer Yumi Ishikawa, that hopes to persuade employers to end the practice of expecting women to wear high heels when working or seeking employment. “Today we submitted a petition [to the Japanese government] calling for the introduction of laws banning employers from forcing women to wear heels as sexual discrimination or harassment,” Ishikawa told reporters. While #KuToo hopes to address the deeper issues of misogyny in Japan, they’re not alone. A similar petition about high heels was signed by more than 150,000 people in the UK in 2016, and a miniature outcry happened after women wearing flats were denied access to the red carpet in Cannes in 2015. (Julia Roberts was on the case, evidently.) 
The Guardian

A new podcast series explores the many ways to be Muslim
This photo essay from photographer Chris Buck published a photo essay in the May issue of magazine which flips a familiar racial and power dynamic between women or girls. In one photo, a wealthy Latina woman ignores a white maid pouring her coffee. In another, a little white girl looks at an endless wall of beautiful black-skinned dolls. And one photo shows a row of laughing Asian customers ignoring the white women providing pedicures. The photographer aimed to spark a conversation about race and class, preferably in real life. But, as Quartz reports, the chatter happened immediately online, not all of it productive. “Y’all act like we force the [a]sians to do nails and y’all act like there aren’t just as many black dolls in the stores as white ones these days,” said one twitter user. And with that, many pairs of earrings were held.
Quartz

How to avoid at least some social media hate
Meredith Clark offers an interesting filter for anyone who wants to avoid being “myopic” when they publish anything online: The Talese Test. Named for Gay Talese, who not-so-long-ago horrified audiences with an unfortunate exchange with a black female New York Times writer, it encourages anyone who writes about diverse topics to seek feedback from people with lived experiences and to employ empathy in writing.
Poynter

Tamara El-Waylly helped produce today’s raceAhead and contributed to today’s summaries.

Quote

I really didn’t know what segregation was like before I went into the Army…I think what God did with me […] was put me on a ship and send me around the world, and let me live in different environments and be in contact with different people and to really and truly find out what was behind it because I certainly didn’t know.
Amzie Moore, World War II veteran from an all-black town in Mississippi