From "Making history, again," Michael T. Jarvis' Los Angeles Times interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The irony of coming home to segregation after liberating Nazi concentration camps has been listed as one of the inspirations for the civil rights movement.
It took something like that to make white Americans think about it. There were signs in Berlin that said "No Jews" and signs in Birmingham, Alabama, that said "White Only." A number of [members of the 761st] had been from the South and had witnessed a lynching or something bad, and it resonated with the stuff that they saw in the death camps.
Long-overdue recognition of the 761st began in 1978 with the Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism awarded by President Jimmy Carter. What could you add to the record?
I think people will understand that the black community of America did an extraordinary job at great risk. The Tuskegee Airmen and the 761st did extraordinary things. That doesn't include all the menial stuff that they did ungrudgingly.
Did you experience segregation?
My experience started in the spring of 1962. I had to go down to North Carolina to a family friend's graduation. I had to ride the bus there. It was horrifying. I thought I was traveling in another country. As soon as we got across the bridge from Washington, D.C., I started to see all the signs, the public affirmations of their support for Jim Crow. It was appalling.
Do you see parallels between the obstacles faced by the men of the 761st and African American military personnel today?
I don't think so. I think Jimmy Carter's affirmative action program just nailed it. Our military services are a real meritocracy and one of the most integrated and diverse aspects of American society, and also the best in the world.