2016 Civil Rights Staff Ride confronts history … and the future

By Dr. Robert J. Goldstein Professor of Law

September 1st, 2016 | News, News and Features
Cadets form the honor guard for a ceremony at the grave of Henry Ossian Flipper, USMA Class of 1877, in Thomasville, Ga.  The ceremony, arranged by the West Point Society of Tallahassee, was shown on the local evening news.
Cadets speak with Terry Shima (left), and Norman Minetta (right) in Washington, D.C. Shima, a World War II veteran, served in the Army while his family was held in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Minetta was interned as well as a child in an internment camp, he would later serve in Congress and as a cabinet member for two American presidents.
Cadet Otuoze Baiye at the site of the Rohwer Internment Camp in rural Arkansas. The monument, for American Soldiers of Japanese ancestry who served in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, is labeled “Courage,” and reads, “Dedicated to the patriotic Japanese-American men from Rowher Internment Camp who sacrificed their lives in the service of their country in World War II.”
Cadets visit City Hall in Anniston, Ala., where they sat down with local leaders to discuss current issues in civil rights.

The June heat was peaking and the sun lingered over Charleston as if it would never set as the 10 of us, eight cadets and two instructors, walked to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The security guards were visibly relieved at our appearance in uniform. Their vigilance was no surprise given the events of a year earlier, when a heavily armed individual, intent on starting a race war, burst into a prayer meeting and murdered nine church members.

The church was an important destination in a marathon two-week staff ride which is part of Law 199, a course in Civil Rights Law and History at the U.S. Military Academy.

The course and the trip are interdisciplinary and were crafted to combine knowledge and empathy to provide a first-hand “life changing” experience to cadets who had just finished their challenging first (plebe) year.

We were escorted into the Church and warmly welcomed and invited to sit interspersed with parishioners. In response to questions of what had brought us to them, we explained that the West Point Civil Rights Staff Ride was an intense immersive educational experience designed to study the “long” civil rights movement in order to try and understand the civil rights issues of today.

The cadets were chosen from a pool of almost 40 plebes who went through the rigorous application process.

The chosen cadets were: Otuoze Baiye from Oklahoma, Whitney Gunderman from Florida, Baxter Hodge from Alabama, Jack Lowe from New Jersey, Ashley Salgado from Puerto Rico, Neon Stern from Arizona, Madeline Suba from Pennsylvania, and Tobey Yates from Iowa.

After a week of intensive classes, our first stop was at the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., for a program with former Secretary of Transportation and Commerce Norm Mineta, on the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during the World War II.

Cadets later boarded the Auto-Train for a visit to St. Augustine, Florida, the scene of a long fought bloody civil rights battle. Community members came out in droves to meet cadets and speak about their experiences in that battle which moved the nation toward ending legalized discrimination in 1964.

To Cadet Lowe it “felt like I was arriving at my grandmother’s house for a family reunion around Christmas, all the people at the museum came out and hugged us, kissed our cheeks, shook our hands and were just absolutely overjoyed to have us at their museum.”

The Staff Ride studies civil rights as one would study a battle. As a military academy, West Point is very familiar with the use of staff rides to teach future officers battle tactics. When viewed from a wider perspective, the long civil rights movement is a series of pitched battles.

As Cadet Baiye noted, “reading history and watching videos can only do so much for me. I realized on that train car how even students of history can easily take it for granted. I don’t think I can ever understand exactly what they went through, all the brutality they experienced, just so the West Point Civil Rights Staff Ride group could sit together in the same train car.”

The trip took cadets to Thomasville, Georgia for a moving ceremony with members of the West Point Society of Tallahassee to place a wreath on the grave of USMA’s first African-American graduate, Henry O. Flipper.

One of the many highlights of the trip was a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, where cadets met Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, one of five books they were required to read.

“While we were definitely star-struck,” Cadet Salgado reflected, “we felt grateful and honored to be able to speak with an individual who has dedicated his life to such a worthy cause.”

EJI asserts the rights to criminal defendants who have been sentenced to die in jail, both by capital punishment and with sentences of life-without-parole.

Cadets got the chance to witness first-hand the plight of those prisoners when they visited Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary. Most of the inmate population is sentenced to die in Angola.

Some are sentenced to the death penalty, but the vast majority are serving terms of life-without-parole. And most of the inmates are black.

The cadets also read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which looks at mass incarceration in the United States as a civil rights issue that perpetuates Jim Crow discrimination.

In Arkansas, cadets visited the Rowher World War II Japanese-American internment camp. Cadets had studied the infamous Korematsu case, and took careful note of its recent mention during the 2016 presidential campaign based on fears approximating those of Americans after Pearl Harbor.

The visit to the very remote site of the camp was summed up by Cadet Yates, “visiting the site and seeing its location on a small dirt road off the highway shows how little is discussed about the Japanese Internment, and how more should be done to teach the public about this part of American history.”

There were many more stops before the Staff Ride reached Charleston.

On June 17, 2015, when the gunman broke into the Emanuel AME Church, Cadet Suba had been on vacation in Charleston with her parents as they “woke up to news of the shooting at the Church—six blocks from our hotel.”

“Incidents such as this,” noted Cadet Hodge, “although uncommon, exhibit that the intense racism that enabled the upholding of slavery and Jim Crow in the past is still present in our nation today.”

As we sat with church members on that sweltering June day, it was the warmth of those in the room that we all would remember. The prayers and songs contained neither bitterness nor vengeance.

Forgiveness was a theme, one elderly woman said that if her friend, who had lost her son, had the strength to forgive, she too must find the courage to forgive. But they will not forget. Neither will the cadets, who returned to West Point understanding the importance of what they experienced.

Cadet Salgado concurs, “the Civil Rights Staff Ride is just the beginning of understanding myself, caring about others, and being more aware of America’s largest problem.”

The Staff Ride is a project of the West Point Center for the Rule of Law, funded entirely by gift funds and led by Professor Robert J. Goldstein and Maj. Daniel Sjursen.

(Editor’s note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.)