News | Feb. 23, 2018

Barriers to equality are seen, unseen, says former NFL linebacker

By Beth Reece

African Americans have fought enemies seen and unseen, a former NFL linebacker told McNamara Headquarters Complex employees during a Black History Month observance Feb. 21. 

“We’re fighting two battles. One is of flesh and blood, but the other is the one you don’t see. We have to look at it daily and understand that the one you don’t see is the one that’s most dangerous because it sneaks up on you,” said Ken Harvey, who played for the Phoenix Cardinals and Washington Redskins from 1988 to 1999.

Harvey referred to Bible verse Ephesians 6:12 to portray the challenges of the quest for equality: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rules of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Using the theme of this year’s observance, “African Americans in Times of War,” Harvey illustrated the struggles blacks have faced in the line of duty. He shared the story of Army Sgt. Henry Johnson, who served heroically in World War I.

Johnson was born into poverty in the south, but by the time the call went out for men to enlist to serve in the war, he was married and living in Albany, New York, as a railroad porter. Johnson eagerly signed up although African Americans were relegated to noncombat or support roles at the time. He was assigned to an all-black National Guard unit that later became the Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment and initially worked guard duty in New York until the men were sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for combat training.

“In the South, the men encountered discrimination from locals. They were pushed from the sidewalks, they were refused snack and denied cigarettes, and their training facilities weren’t really up to par compared to everyone else’s,” Harvey said.

When the 369th was shipped overseas, some of the units were left at the port to unload ships. Others were sent abroad to dig latrines. A leader in Harvey’s unit who previously worked as an attorney fought to make African Americans eligible for combat, and when the rule changed, Johnson and his fellow black soldiers were sent to fight with the French.

On May 15, 1918, then-Private Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were on sentry duty covering the midnight to 4 a.m. shift when they heard rustling in the bushes. Johnson instructed Roberts to alert the others, but as Roberts stood to leave, he was shot and severely injured. He pulled himself up next to Johnson and together they unpacked a box of about 30 grenades. Roberts handed the grenades to Johnson, who lobbed them out into the darkness. When the grenades were gone, Johnson started swinging the butt of his rifle at anyone who drew near. Then he drew his bolo knife, slashing it at anything that moved.

“By daylight, some of the other soldiers came around to help and found German soldiers that were killed and weapons that were left behind. Johnson had over 21 separate injuries on his person. After this incident, the Germans referred to the 369th as ‘the Hell fighters,’” Harvey said.

For his valor, France awarded Johnson the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme (War Cross With Palm).

“Recognition from the American government didn’t come as readily,” Harvey said, even though former President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the five greatest Americans to serve in the war in his book “Rank and File: True Stories of the Great War.”

After the war, Johnson returned to Albany to discover he could no longer do his job at the railroad because of injuries to his left foot. But since his discharge papers were completed improperly, he received no disability benefits.

“Johnson knew this was wrong and lacked the education to help himself, so he soon began to drink heavily,” Harvey continued. By 1924, Johnson’s wife and children had left him. He died five years later at age 32.

His son, Herman, grew up to serve as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II and was inspired to explore the details of his father’s service. Learning about his father’s achievements, Herman campaigned for his father to receive the honors he was due. In 2015, he was posthumously granted the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor in action against enemy forces.

American soldiers like Johnson knew they weren’t fighting just for themselves, but for the next generation as well, Harvey said. “They knew that the battles they fought were not just of flesh of blood, but of spirits and principalities. It was of the future,” he said.

Harvey encouraged employees to value the lessons embedded in American history so mistakes of the past aren’t repeated. He also noted that black history is woven into the history of all Americans.

“There were a lot white Americans who sacrificed their lives to do what was right, who opposed what everyone else was doing and stood for what was right,” he said. “So as we celebrate African American history, we have to encompass all history.”