Each year has its own story to tell and can bring with it enough momentum to cause a lifetime's worth of change. Time was of the essence in the early 1900s when the country divided itself by skin color and political association. The South, in particular, became almost two separate societies. As black people began to find a voice for themselves, white political leaders resisted them. The passage of time became a source of hope for the black people, because they knew that injustice could not last forever, and though their rights could be taken away, their voices could not. Freedom came with time, and so would equality.
Richmond built itself as a mecca for social and political change. The strength of their churches and religious organizations made it easier for black people to speak their minds and take part in the city's development. Richmond was home to one of the most important platforms for black advancement, congeniality, and conflict -- the Richmond Planet. The long-lasting ache of the 1906 Brownsville Affair, an act of racial injustice, had lived on for years to come. The Planet's reaction to the Brownsville Affair is a historical testament that demonstrates virtue in unity along with the American sense of intolerance of injustice.
The Planet proved to be no stranger to important matters, and not so important ones as well, but focused on things that solicited a reaction from their readers. John Mitchell, the outspoken editor and pointman for the newspaper, reacted strongly to every aspect of American culture and society. The paper wrote particularly to its audience, which was predominantly black, and did not fear repercussions for denouncing the government, especially President Roosevelt. Mitchell deployed language and a tone that conveyed the importance they placed on remarkable and revealing events, such as the Brownsville Affair.The Planet wrote about the incident from the day it made headlines to the day the soldiers could finally reenlist, and even long after. The events in Brownsville grew to be a symbol of injustice, undeniable racism, and hope that the country could be capable of moving towards improvement and greater acceptance of blacks.
President Roosevelt's "discharge without honor" of the 25th Infantry of African American buffalo soldiers disappointed his black supporters. It also disappointed people who thought the country had finally overcome inequality by allowing blacks to fight in combat. Coincidently, the Brownsville affair turned into a source of hope for blacks because it brought togetherness for those who fought against the injustice. The incident also powered the 1908 presidential elections which focused to a considerable extent on black support and equality.
The Planet and its readers reacted to the Brownsville Affair positively and negatively. In 1908, two years after the onset of the event, writers and readers had grown tired of hearing the same things over and over again -- that the soldiers did not deserve justice and that the crime they allegedly committed meant that blacks were unfit to fight alongside white soldiers. The American intolerance of injustice came to surface with the loss of respect for President Roosevelt. His decision deeming the soldiers guilty on an insufficient basis of evidence, the “conspiracy of silence,” became highly disputed among politicians, the nation’s citizens, and well known social leaders. Booker T. Washington pleaded with him to reevaluate the case, but could not sway the president. Senator Joseph B. Foraker, another popular figure in 1908, spoke for blacks when he lobbied for the continued investigation of the affair and filed a minority report in support of the soldiers’ innocence. Though he did not succeed in proving their innocence, the senator encouraged the passing of a bill that would allow the soldiers to reenlist. Foraker also ran for presidency and lost, but the soldiers gained the right to enlist in 1910.Foraker garnered the support of many blacks because of his interest in their communities and ideas. Influential politicians such as Foraker and Washington gave hope to Richmond, even with Roosevelt’s damaged popularity and Brownsville’s looming unrest.
There is no concrete evidence as to whyRoosevelt adamantly denied returning justice to the soldiers. Throughout 1908 it seemed as if he spent his last year in the presidency trying to justify his actions and make amends by putting his energy into the next elections. His decision to remove the soldiers from combat may have been due to the pressure to appease his white supporters and political advisors. They were his largest group of allies, and to anger them meant to cause backlash and difficulty in accomplishing other matters on his political agenda. Essentially, Roosevelt chose political gain over moral high ground. The Brownsville Affair later turned into his worst action as president, and though he was shown to be a fair man in other regards, he firmly believed those men did not deserve justice and that they were guilty of such a heinous crime. As the Planet charged, “The denial to the members of Companies B C and D of that even-handed justice so often spoken in song and story will prove to be the darkest blot upon the escutcheon of the present administration.” Mitchell and his supporters never truly forgave Roosevelt and the rest of the presidential administration for their handling of the Brownsville Affair. The Planet worked to secure greater support for black people by the Republicans and make sure their voices were heard in the next election.
The intolerance of injustice also demonstrated that the black people of Richmond and the rest of the country showed power in numbers. Unity gave them an undeniable strength in the face of disapproval by whites and the Brownsville Affair. John Mitchell provoked a renewed sense of purpose for black Americans. The black community would no longer tolerate injustice. Together they resisted by reading or writing to the paper, protesting, or boycotting government services. The Planet never gave up because the paper made it its duty to fight for the soldiers if the government would not. The Planet did whatever it could to share every bit of information they had on the event.
The intolerance of injustice within Richmond in 1908 and beyond, especially because of Roosevelt’s decision, lead people to fight for the soldiers’ justice until they could reenlist. According to The Planet, the attempt to discredit black soldiers “ignominiously failed.” The government and its white supporters may have been able to take away their rights, but failed to take away their voice. Years later their voices were enough to grant 14 soldiers reenlistment and the justice they deserved. On December 26th, 1908, new evidence arose when Boyd Conyers, a soldier in the 25th Infantry, spoke up. He asserted that President Roosevelt, and the townspeople of Brownsville, told lies to prove the soldiers guilty. It was not until over 50 years later that the soldiers were deemed truly innocent. After the publication in 1970 of John D. Weaver’s The Brownsville Raid, which argued that the discharged soldiers had been innocent, the army conducted a new investigation and, in 1972, reversed the order of 1906.
The Brownsville Affair encompassed an overwhelming amount of the 1908 newspapers, but it did so alongside the hard-fought 1908 presidential elections. These elections offered an opportunity for black people to finally have a more significant role in the next chapter of American government. The Planet kept its audience up to date with presidential speeches, debates and opinionated articles that encouraged black people to vote for Taft and Senator Foraker. A majority of the Planet’s readers felt that Taft would better carry the Republican Party and the fight against injustice over William J. Bryan.
The Brownsville Affair factored largely into who black men would vote for. When Taft was Secretary of State during the onset of the Brownsville Affair, he never directly criticized Roosevelt. However when he ran for office, he took Roosevelt’s aid, but spoke his own beliefs. He assured Americans that he was going to continue to fight for black rights and repair damages that Roosevelt left behind from Brownsville. Taft’s win meant a great victory for black people, because they could start over and leave Brownsville behind.Roosevelt never apologized for his “dishonorable discharge,” but because of his decision, blacks were more involved than ever in the elections. They wanted to see a president in power that cared more for their people and growing neighborhoods.
Though the Brownsville Affair was one of many acts of racial injustice, it turned out to be a notably important one. Being as people did not accept the decision President Roosevelt made, they fought back with words, both for themselves and for the men who were wronged. The Brownsville Affair was not another story of lynching or disfranchisement, but the denial of innocent men to fight for their country. They were protecting America alongside white soldiers, yet were treated with injustice because the people of Brownsville did not want to see men of color in such a position of power. The Planet continued to report about Brownsville until 1908 and beyond because it demonstrated a virtue in unity and the compelling intolerance of injustice the paper represented.