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Posted on Friday, November 9, 2018

One hundred years ago on November 11, World War I – aka The Great War and The War to End War – came to an end. The victorious Allies declared the armistice to begin at 11:11 on 11/11. Armistice Day was later rechristened Veterans Day, and ever since, America has celebrated its warriors of freedom on that day.

The world hoped that this peace would indeed end war and make the world safe for democracy, as President Woodrow Wilson had said. If that had come to pass, then perhaps the sacrifice of 15 million lives the world over might have been worth it. But it was not to be. The Great War that ended in 1918 was only the first major, bloody conflict in a century full of them. Over the decades, millions more Americans would swell the ranks of Veterans Day’s honorees, many with visible and/or invisible wounds of war.

Respect for veterans has not always been universal, non-controversial and uncomplicated. One little-remembered episode occurred in the summer of 1932, during the nadir of the Great Depression, when over 40,000 veterans marched on Washington asking for money they said they were owed from their World War I service. They weren’t asking for any bonus, but some observers called it that, so the misnomer “Bonus Army” stuck.

What happened next might surprise you. First the police, and then six hundred troops, with tanks and with future WWII heroes MacArthur, Patton and Eisenhower, assailed the protesters, pushing them around (literally) with clubs, bayonets and tear gas. The marchers’ shantytown was burned down, injuring many and endangering everyone, including children. Two protesters were killed and many more injured. The Army pushed and chased the Bonus Army out of the Mall, across the river into Anacostia, where the marchers’ main camp was located, and attacked them there as well.

The Bonus Army was defeated and expelled from the capital without any “bonus” or anything else to show for their protest except two dead and over 1,000 injured. The National Parks Conservation Association covered those events well in this recent article.

It’s a safe assumption that the dispersed Bonus Marchers – now doubly veterans – felt mixed emotions on Veterans Day of 1932.

But there were fortunate takeaways from those events. For one thing, the Bonus Army was integrated – black and white people stood and marched together for justice. For another, Martin Luther King and other organizers of the March on Washington in 1963 – and the Poor People’s March of 1968, which Dr. King didn’t live to see happen – took inspiration from the Bonus March, and didn’t let its bloody outcome deter them from trying again and again.

Another, more local, positive outcome was bestowed on Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. Already honored as the home of Frederick Douglass, the Bonus March further solidified Anacostia’s connection with civil rights and freedom.

November 11 for all of us solemnizes and perpetuates America’s respect for our veterans. The history may be complicated, but we love, honor and respect the men and women who have served in our military and kept America safe.

Here at the EEOC, may all of us take increased pride in our military veterans. Because of what they have done for us, let us enhance our devotion to make America’s workplaces discrimination-free.


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