Veterans Day Bill Targets Racial Inequality

Centennial anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington

For Veterans Day, a group of Democratic lawmakers are reviving an effort to pay families of black military personnel who fought on behalf of the nation during World War II for benefits that were denied or not allowed to take full advantage of when they returned home from the war. …

The new legislation will benefit the surviving spouses and all living descendants of WWII black veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to amass wealth through housing and education benefits through the Military Personnel Bill.

WATCH: Biden speaks at Arlington National Cemetery on the occasion of Veterans Day

Since 1944, these benefits have been provided to millions of veterans moving into civilian life. But due to racism and discrimination in the way they were provided through local veterans affairs offices, many black WWII veterans received significantly less money to buy a home or continue their education.

The Senate bill was due Thursday by Georgia Senator Rafael Warnock, the son of a World War II veteran.

“We’ve all seen this inequality diminish over time,” Warnock said, adding that the bill “represents an important step towards redressing this inequity.”

The House’s version was presented last week by Congressman Jim Cliburn of South Carolina, MP, and Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

“This is an opportunity for America to correct a glaring mistake,” Cliburn said. “I hope he can also lay the foundation that will help break the vicious circle of poverty among those people who are descendants of those who sacrificed to preserve this democracy.”

Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran who served four rounds during the Iraq War, said: “Many black Americans today are feeling the consequences of this injustice, even though it was originally committed 70 years ago.”

“I think restoring benefits under the military law is one of the greatest racial justice challenges of our time,” he said.

The legislation will expand educational assistance under the VA and GI Bill Loan Guarantee Program to black WWII veterans and their descendants who are still alive at the time the bill is passed. A group of independent experts will also be created to study inequalities in how benefits are provided to women and people of color.

Lawrence Brooks, 112, the oldest living U.S. veteran, was drafted during World War II and sent to the 91st General Service Engineer Regiment, which is mostly black.

According to his daughter Vanessa Brooks, the Louisiana native who has 12 grandchildren and 23 great-grandsons, has always believed that serving his country is the only way to leave his life behind the son of sharecroppers.

But after being fired as a first-class private trader in August 1945, he fell short of his dream of going to college, working instead as a forklift driver before retiring at 60. “He always wanted to go to school,” his daughter said.

And when he bought his house, he used his retirement fund, not military benefits, she said.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Military Reorganization Act in 1944, providing generous financial subsidies to 16 million World War II veterans who graduate and buy their first homes. Veterans who served more than 90 days during the war and were fired with honor, regardless of race, were eligible for benefits.

But after returning from the war, black and white veterans faced two very different realities.

Because benefits under the military law had to be approved by local VA officers, who were few blacks, the process created problems for veterans. This was particularly acute in the Deep South, where Jim Crow’s segregation imposed racist barriers to home ownership and education.

Local VA officers either made it difficult for black veterans to access their benefits or diminished their value, diverting them away from predominantly white four-year colleges to vocational and other non-degree programs. Meanwhile, national colleges and universities that have historically been black have seen such a dramatic increase in the recruitment of black veterans that schools have been forced to drop tens of thousands of potential students.

Sergeant. Joseph Maddox, one of two World War II veterans named after Moulton and Cliburn, was denied tuition fees at the local VA office, despite being accepted to graduate school at Harvard University.

“When it came time to pay the bill, the government just refused,” said Moulton, who himself attended Harvard on the military bill. “It’s actually quite emotional for veterinarians who have gone through it themselves and, like me, know what a change the law on the military has made in our lives.”

The bill is also named after the sergeant. Isaac Woodard Jr., a World War II veteran from Winnsboro, South Carolina, was severely beaten and blinded by a small town police chief in 1946 after returning home from the war. The acquittal of the attacker by an all-white jury facilitated the integration of the US military in 1948.

In contrast to the treatment of black veterans, the military bill helped boost home tenure among white veterans during the post-war housing boom that caused the ripple effect their children and grandchildren are enjoying today.

Of the more than 3,000 VA home loans issued to Mississippi veterans in the summer of 1947, only two were to black veterans, according to a poll by Ebony magazine at the time.
The FHA’s racist housing policies also influenced black WWII veterans, no doubt fueling today’s racial wealth divide. Typically, realtors and banks refuse to show houses or offer mortgages to qualified home buyers in certain areas because of their race or ethnicity.

According to Maria Madison, director of the Institute for Economic and Racial Equality at Brandeis University, preliminary analysis of historical data shows that black and white veterans received their benefits at the same rate. …

However, due to institutional racism and other obstacles, black veterans were more limited in how they could use their benefits. As a result, the cash equivalent of their benefits was only 40% of what the white veterans received.

After adjusting for inflation and market yields, Madison said the difference in value is $ 170,000 per veteran. Her current research aims to invest in the loss of wealth for black families caused by racism and injustice under the military law.

Black WWII veterans fortunate enough to gain full access to GI Bill’s benefits have succeeded in building a good life for themselves and their families, said Matthew Delmont, professor of history at Dartmouth College. According to him, this is a clear argument in favor of the need to adopt new legislation.

“Because the GI benefits were not more evenly distributed among black veterans, we lost an entire generation of black wealth builders,” Delmont said. “After the war, we could have had even more doctors, lawyers, teachers and architects.”

Dovie Johnson Roundtree, a black woman, WWII veteran, attended Howard University Law School with Benefits under the GI Bill program. She went on to become the internationally renowned Washington criminal defense attorney who played a key role in breaking bus travel segregation.

And WWII veteran Robert Madison, who served as a second lieutenant in the US Army, has acknowledged his benefits to the military for his success as a famous architect.