On King and other soldiers Medals of Honor: Pacifist would have celebrated civil rights victory for war heroes.


NONVIOLENCE WAS the credo of Martin Luther King Jr. He taught his demonstrators to resist the curses and blows of their oppressors. He spoke out against a war he believed to be immoral in Vietnam. And yet, as much as Dr. King stood for passive resistance, he also served as a symbol for certain truths -- one of the most important being that all people should be equally rewarded for their good deeds.

As we celebrate Dr. King's birthday today, it is appropriate that we also honor men of good deeds who, for too long, were inadequately recognized. Investigators now have found numerous instances during World War II where white military commanders had said they didn't want the Medal of Honor presented to black soldiers. Instead, the nine were awarded the lesser Distinguished Service Cross.

But now a wrong has been corrected. President Clinton in ceremonies Monday posthumously presented the Medal of Honor to those soldiers and another who had previously been given the Silver Star. Their families received the honor in the heroes' names. Only one is still alive -- Vernon J. Baker, who as a young second lieutenant from Cheyenne, Wyo., single-handedly wiped out two German machine gun nests, led successful hTC attacks on two others, then drew fire on himself so the wounded could be evacuated. But he wasn't finished. He later guided his battalion through enemy minefields.

As the ribbon holding the medal was draped around Mr. Baker's neck, his eyes revealed nothing more than peace of mind. He said he never felt slighted because he previously had been denied the honor. He only knew he had a job to do during the war, and he did it.

The simplicity of that remark reveals much about the measure of a hero. It could just as well be applied to Dr. King, who also had a job to do and did it without regard to rewards or dangers. The civil rights leader, as did many soliders, made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause he knew in his heart was right. Dr. King fought for justice. He would have applauded the overdue justice afforded 10 black soldiers whose heroism certainly knew no color.

Pub Date: 1/15/97

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