In "Section 4, Lot 2738-B" of Arlington National Cemetery is First Lt. William McBryar: Buffalo Soldier, Medal of Honor recipient, and veteran of multiple military campaigns.
He was born a slave in the Carolinas just months before the Civil War began, the son of an African-American mother and a white, Scot-Irish father bearing my family name.
As Reconstruction descended upon the South, he headed north to attend college. He dropped out after a semester, and with no other real prospects, joined the U.S. Army in 1887.
He served all over the world. Forced into retirement because of age and arthritis, William decided to finish what he started. At age 73, he returned to school and graduated from Tennessee State Agricultural and Industrial College.
I knew nothing of him until recently (as some of my family’s researchers still refer to the Civil War as that "act of Northern aggression"), but discovering him has been astonishing.
Because he was a war hero, or his tenacity? Because my middle son, days away from joining the military and an African-American descendant of slaves himself, has found solidarity in him?
These are all important, but McBryar inspires me most because of how he grew as a person. While always proud of his military service, later in life he was sometimes conflicted over what he had been asked to do — especially against people of color.
I have a dissertation that he wrote (thanks to the archives of Tennessee State University). These are the words of a wise elder, not a young warrior.
He wrote, "We have been inoculated with a barbaric spirit which should cause us to tremble for the future of civilization. What is the nature of that human weakness which seeks justice for one’s self but denies it to others? What is it within us which causes us to accept cruelty with complacency? Why is justice glorified for one race but denied to another?
"Justice causes [us] to protect the weak, to provide for the care of children and the aged. Justice in the courts, justice between men, justice among races, as well as the recent ambitious national program of social justice. Justice is the life-line of a nation; injustice, the cancer which slowly eats it away. Allow justice to become stagnant, and the nation will languish and die."
So, at Memorial Day weekend, I remember a decorated serviceman. Was he a hero? He wouldn’t say so, nor would he say every battle he ever fought was right. But he would say that it is always right to do what is right.
Our future depends upon it.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.org.