What do a 17th-century Presbyterian Minister, a 19th-century Civil War heroine, and a 21st-century pop singer have in common?
As a nation, America is painfully slow to apologize and make things right when it comes to injustice, and to recognize heroes who were denied their day due to some form of discrimination.
It took us nearly 100 years to end slavery and another 100 to pass civil rights laws.
We finally apologized for placing Japanese citizens in camps during World War II in 1988.
And in 1997, President Clinton presented seven African-American soldiers with Medals of Honor for their service in World War II. Prior to that date, no African-American had received the Medal for that conflict, though more than a million served in the war.
So it’s no surprise that it’s taken us until now to recognize the contributions of Hispanic and Jewish soldiers. As reported by CBS News, President Obama will award 24 Medals of Honor in March to a group of veterans primarily of Hispanic and Jewish heritage. All but three of the awards are posthumous, with one of those going to Pfc. Leonard M. Kravitz, born in New York City, killed during combat operations in Yangpyong, South Korea, on March 6-7, 1951, who happens to be the Jewish uncle of pop singer Lenny Kravitz. Pfc. Kravitz, who enlisted by choice, took the trigger of a machine gun during a Korean attack on American troops, refused to retreat when ordered, saved his platoon, then met his death at the age of 21.
It’s simultaneously sad and heartening to read the list of men with names such as Gomez, Espinoza, and Weinstein, who served bravely and either died in combat for our country or returned home without proper recognition for their valorous actions, and to see these men finally honored by a black President named Obama. The phrase “better late than never” comes to mind, along with the hope that we’ll keep getting better at avoiding discrimination when it comes to national service.
Interestingly, “better late than never” is a quote attributed to English Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry, a man who knew a thing or two about discrimination, as his father, Philip Henry, was ejected under the Act of Uniformity 1662, in which 2,000 Puritan ministers were thrown out of the Church of England for not conforming to the Book of Common Prayer. Henry went on to become the minister of his own congregation, wrote extensive commentary on the Bible, and is best known for his quote about women: “the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” An early feminist? Perhaps. It seems Henry might have been proud of Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman ever to have received the Medal of Honor. Walker served as a surgeon for the Union during the Civil War and was captured by the Confederates and imprisoned in Richmond. But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. In 1917, when the U.S. created pensions for Medal of Honor recipients, Walker’s name was deleted from the Honor Roll two years before her death in 1919—and a year before the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote—and was not restored until 1977 by President Carter.
This all leaves me wondering, what will it take for us as a nation to start owning up for our mistakes and recognizing our heroes in a timely fashion?