Dorie Miller helped challenge Jim Crow
June 5, 2001
The movie "Pearl Harbor" helps bring to light one of the war's forgotten heroes, Doris (Dorie) Miller, played in the film by Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. Miller not only demonstrated bravery during the war, but his actions also had far-reaching implications for America's struggle for civil rights.
Miller's heroism was exceeded only by its irony. Miller was black, the son of Texas sharecroppers and, like all blacks then serving in the Navy, was a messman limited to working in the ship's galley or waiting on white officers. At the time, blacks were segregated in all of the nation's military branches, just as they were in most other areas of American life.
But on Dec. 7, 1941, during the attack on the battleship West Virginia, Miller helped carry his mortally wounded captain from the ship's burning bridge. Later, even though untrained in the weapon, Miller manned a machine gun and began "blazing away as though he had fired one all his life," reported one eyewitness. Miller shot down two enemy aircraft before flames forced him from the gun. (Some unofficial accounts claimed he had shot down six planes.) He then helped pull wounded men from the water.
After the attack, however, the Navy refused to release Miller's name, referring to him only as "an unidentified Negro messman." Some claim that the Navy did not want its first hero of the war to be a black man.
Black newspapers and civil-rights organizations uncovered Miller's name and publicized the incident in the hopes of forcing the Navy to recognize his exploits and to open its ranks to blacks.
One editorial in a black newspaper asked, "Is it fair, honest or sensible that this country, with its fate in the balance, should continue to bar Negroes from service except in the mess department of the Navy, when at the first sign of danger they so dramatically show their willingness to face death in defense of the Stars and Stripes?"
Miller's bravery resonated among whites as well. Hollywood, ever sensitive to public taste, included a Dorie Miller-like character in the 1943 war movie "Crash Dive." Among the whites touched by Miller's story was Ronald Reagan. Decades later, President Reagan would tell of "a Negro sailor whose total duties involved kitchen-type duties. . . . He cradled a machine gun in his arms . . . and stood on the end of a pier blazing away at Japanese airplanes that were coming down and strafing him, and (segregation) was all changed."
Miller's courage was impressive, but Reagan was wrong in believing that that alone was enough to force a change in military policy. But the wave of protests by blacks was far more important in forcing the Navy to begin dismantling its Jim Crow policy.
In April 1942, the Department of the Navy announced that it would begin accepting blacks for general service in the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.
But blacks would still train and serve in segregated units. Such a half step also characterized the Navy's treatment of Miller. In May 1942, it awarded him the Navy Cross, that service's highest decoration. Yet Miller's "distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety" brought him only a promotion from mess attendant second class to mess attendant first class. So on Thanksgiving Day 1943, the day Miller died at sea, he was still waiting on white officers.
Dorie Miller's story exemplifies the country's conflicting views on race at the time. The war put great strain on the nation's Jim Crow system. Its demands of national security, the service and heroism of blacks in uniform and protests by black civilians helped ease race relations.
What's more, during the war, the federal government began to investigate lynchings as violations of civil rights, require fair employment in defense industries and ban the whites-only primaries that effectively denied many Southern blacks the right to vote.
These wartime steps were incomplete, but America was moving, however grudgingly, toward racial equality. And while victory against segregation and Jim Crow would take another two decades, the offensive was underway.
In the words of poet Langston Hughes:
When Dorie Miller took gun in hand--
Jim Crow started his last stand.
Our battle yet is far from won
But when it is, Jim Crow'll be done.
We gonna bury that son-of-a-gun!
Phil Klinkner is a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton,
N.Y., and the co-author of "The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America" (University of Chicago Press, 1999), from which this commentary was excerpted. Klinkner can be reached at email@example.com.