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Keisha Russell column: A memorial cross that stands for peace and unity
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Bladensburg “Peace Cross”

Keisha Russell column: A memorial cross that stands for peace and unity

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On Aug. 12, 1925, nearly 30,000 white-robed Klansmen marched on Washington. Some historians consider it the height of the Klan’s shameful power. A decade before, in 1915, “The Birth of a Nation” premiered. President Woodrow Wilson screened it twice for his guests at the White House.

In the decade between Wilson’s theater and the racist theatrics on the streets of Washington, the world waged the Great War. American troops were segregated during World War I because some military leaders thought black and white Americans should not link arms in battle against a common enemy. So the U.S. Army formed what became known as the Red Hand Division and placed it under French command.

John Henry Seaburn Jr., Joseph Ford and William Lee fought for their country in this gallant Red Hand Division. They were black men from Prince George’s County, Md. They died defending our freedom.

The contrast is stunning. While the Klan members cowardly hid their faces from public view — promoting the very racial segregation that declared the bravery of these men inferior to those of white soldiers — Seaburn, Ford and Lee took up arms in plain view of the enemy.

Exactly one month before the Klan march on Washington, a crowd gathered in the nearby suburb of Bladensburg, Md. Their purpose was not to denigrate, but to dedicate.

The Washington Post reported the event this way: “That future generations passing through Bladensburg, Md., may be reminded of the 49 young men of Prince Georges [sic] county who made the supreme sacrifice in the world war, an unadorned cross 40 feet high . . . was dedicated yesterday.”

The memorial was the dream of mothers in Prince George’s County who had lost their sons in World War I and wanted what one of them called a “grave stone” to the memory of their 49 children.

Those gathered on July 12, 1925, were there to unite in the dedication of that memorial. What makes it particularly meaningful is that the names of John Henry Seaburn Jr., Joseph Ford, and William Lee are emblazoned in brass alongside the names of white soldiers like William Redman, Henry Hulbert and Thomas Fenwick.

In the “Peace Cross,” as the locals call it, there is no segregation. Those memorialized may not have fought side-by-side during the war, but they are unified in our memory because of the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial.

Yet today, some would tear that memorial down. This “unadorned cross” is the subject of a lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in February.

The mothers of the fallen, along with The American Legion which my firm represents before the U.S. Supreme Court, chose the shape of a Celtic cross to recall the profile of the gravestones their sons were buried under in Europe.

After 90 years, the American Humanist Association now considers that memorial’s presence on public property to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Americans should honor the way these mothers chose to remember the service and sacrifice of their sons. Tearing down this memorial would not only be like desecrating the graves of these men — it would destroy a critical moment of our history. In the same time that 30,000 “knights” walked the streets of Washington, one of its suburbs rejected discord and disunity in favor of peace. In the same age that the Klan burned crosses to intimidate, The American Legion built one to reassure.

If nothing else, the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial stands as an important reminder that the threat to freedom knows no racial boundary.

Perhaps just as important, the memorial recalls the memory of everyone who died defending freedom.

The same soldiers once separated by skin color in life, are in death united in the Peace Cross.

The memorial remains a lesson in unity despite its uncertain future.

Today, the KKK’s march on Washington bears the scorn of history. The U.S. Supreme Court is the last hope for preserving the historic vision of mothers — black and white — who came together to build the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial.

Keisha Russell is associate counsel to First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. Contact her at krussell@firstliberty.org.

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