WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met today at the Pentagon with actor and producer Morgan Freeman, who is featured in an upcoming documentary about the heroics of a segregated, all-Black Army tanker unit that fought in Europe during World War II.
The two men discussed Freeman's motivation for making the documentary and what he learned in the process during a fireside chat held for an invited audience of service members.
All Americans should be inspired by the story of their 761st Tank Battalion, a unit known as the 'Black Panthers.' ... It's an incredible story and a deeply American story. This battalion earned its place in our history alongside the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and the Tuskegee Airmen." — Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin
Austin said as the men of the 761st trained before they would finally deploy, they also were forced to contend with the racist restrictions of the Jim Crow South.
"But they persisted," he said. "And in 1944 they finally saw combat when they took back a German-held town in France. As one of their commanders remembered, 'my men were tigers. They fought like seasoned veterans. We got our lumps, and we took that town.'"
Freeman is featured in the film that documents the 761st and also served as executive producer. He said that the history the film serves up is not new, it's just that so very few people have ever heard it before.
"The history of Blacks, in the military, [in] war, has always been ... heroic, from the Revolutionary War until today," Freeman told Austin. "The difference is who knows about it, what do you know about it?"
Freeman said he experienced that lack of knowledge after his 1989 film "Glory," which told the story of Black soldiers who fought for their own freedom during the U.S. Civil War. He told Austin that people who had viewed the film told him they had wept because they never knew the story.
Growing up, Freeman told Austin, he learned much about American history from watching movies. But the history in the films he watched never told the whole story, because those films often lacked the contributions of African Americans.
"The only thing that was wrong with me learning history in the movies was I didn't see me," Freeman said. "That bothered me. It still bothers me. But if I want my story told, I have to tell it, don't I? That's my mantra: If you want your story told, you got to tell it."
In a panel discussion that followed the fireside chat, Charles R. Bowery Jr., executive director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said what the 761st and other segregated units did in WWII was to prove wrong the prevailing wisdom at the time — that Black men could not be trusted to perform in combat.
"What the 761st and other units like it did was incredibly important because … one of the core ideas of Jim Crow, of segregation, was that Black people could not perform in combat, that they could not take up a weapon and serve in harm's way," Bowery said.
Studies done after World War I, he said, claimed Black soldiers could not be trusted to serve in combat units and that they didn't possess the mental or physical attributes to take on that responsibility.
"What units like the 761st — which is a combat arms unit, it's an armor battalion, a tank battalion — what they did was demonstrate that this was nonsense," he said.
During WWII, Bowery said, the men of the 761st earned a Presidential Unit Citation, a Medal of Honor, 11 Silver Stars and about 300 Purple Hearts.
"Black Patriots: The 761st Battalion" premieres August 20 on the History Channel.