William H. Carney: Why the Desecration of the Flag for Racial Injustice is Wrong

How Social Justice Warriors fighting for racial injustice have got it wrong.

A man burns the American Flag in protest after the death of George Floyd.

For years, social justice warriors have desecrated the flag in the name of fighting racial injustice. The idea is that somehow the flag represents institutional racism within the United States. I could go on about how such institutional racism no longer exists, but I’ll leave that for another article. For now, I want to talk about how the desecration of the flag not only isn’t a means to fight against racial injustice and oppression, it actually flies in the face of those who saw the flag as the symbol of freedom from real oppression. To understand that, people would have to know history. Unfortunately, as we recently saw by the vandalism by Black Lives Matter protesters who attacked statues and monuments of Abolitionists, Union leaders who fought the Confederacy, and civil rights icons; we know that they don’t know their history. Somehow, these individuals determined that Matthias Baldwin, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Hans Christian Heg, Frederick Douglas, and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial were all racists monuments. Clearly, they didn’t have a clue. Then again, uneducated protesters are often the most destructive and least effective groups to start a conversation, instead bringing anger and resentment which pushes people away.

Now, to be clear, as a Marine Corps veteran, I defended the rights of these individuals to have their freedom of speech. And its a right they can exercise as they see fit. But I think its important that they know what they are doing is offensive on so many levels to those who served, and those who died in service. Many American men and women came home draped in that flag, and the desecration of the flag is a travesty to their memories. But when it comes to racial injustice and oppression, there is another reason why the desecration of the flag is wrong, and his name is William Harvey Carney, and this is his story.

William Carney was born on February 29th, 1840 in Norfolk Virginia. He was black and was born into slavery to his father William and his mother Ann. They had taken the last name Carney from their master, Major Carney, who had owned a large plantation. During this time, Carney was sent to a private school where he was taught to read and write even though it was illegal in the state at the time. He loved reading and became proficient at it. When Major Carney died, the Carney family was granted their freedom. Wishing for a better life for his family, Carney’s father raised every bit of money he could until he had enough to move his family north. They moved around until they finally settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Carney worked odd jobs and became a popular fixture at the local church where he loved to sing in the choir. He planned to make the ministry his life, but then the Civil War started and he decided that he could best serve god and enslaved blacks by enlisting in the service. Carney joined the US Army on March 4th, 1863. Carney was assigned to C Company of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black military unit. The same regiment whose statue was defaced by BLM protesters.

The Black Soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment

For the next three months, Carney and other black enlisted men trained for combat before they were sent to the front lines in South Carolina. While in South Carolina, they engaged Confederate Troops in Hilton Head, St. Simon’s Island, Darien, and James Island.

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment attack of Fort Wagner.

On July 18th, 1863, the 54th Regiment would lead the charge against Confederate Forces at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. At 7:45pm, the Regiment, led by Colonel Robert Shaw, charged the Fort. John Wall, the Regiments Color Guard was struck down while carrying the American Flag. As he collapsed, Carney dropped his rifle and caught the flag. He raised the flag high and continued to charge toward the Fort. Unarmed and wounded, Carney reached the wall of the Fort, planted the American Flag into the ground and encouraged his fellow soldiers to keep fighting. He was shot twice, once in the leg and once in the arm. Losing a lot of blood, he stood there until others of his unit arrived to evacuate him. Even near death, Carney refused to let go of the flag. He clutched it tightly as he was evacuated to the medical barracks. When he was reunited with other men from his regiment, he finally surrendered the flag to one of them and said “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!” Carney was promoted to Sergeant. The 54th Regiment lost nearly 50% of their men, including Colonel Shaw. Due to his injuries, Carney was honorably discharged in June 1864.

Sgt. Carney with the Regimental Colors.

Carney continued to work for the US Government for another 32 years as a Postal Worker. On May 23rd, 1900, nearly 37 years after the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, Carney was awarded the Army Medal of Honor, the highest Award given to a soldier. The Citation read: “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.” While Carney was not the first black man to receive the Medal of Honor, his actions were the first actions to be recognized for the award.

Sgt. Carney with the Medal of Honor

You see, Sgt. Carney, a man who was born into slavery, who enlisted in the US Army to help free other black men, saw the American Flag as a symbol of freedom. He saw real black oppression. He lived it and he felt it. He grew up surrounded by it. And when he saw that symbol that meant so much to him falling to the ground, he snatched it up and carried it. He dropped his weapon to catch it, leaving himself exposed. He was wounded and still refused to drop it. He risked his life to protect it. To him, “Old Glory” wasn’t a symbol of racism or oppression, it was a symbol of freedom and hope for a better future. A future that would see man black men and women achieve greatness in this country. Where a black man will become the President. Where some of the richest people in this country are black men and women. Role models, inventors, scientists, lawyers, politicians, police officers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and leaders of industry. Carney fought for that future, and to him, that is what the flag represented. And because of Carney and other black men like him, they started something. They were the first who would become some of the greatest. The first of the next generation of warriors and leaders. Of men who excelled in battle. Heroes whose stories are told over and over. All of whom serve under that symbol Carney fought so hard to protect. And today, protesters desecrate that symbol without even understanding what it truly stands for. And for that, they should be ashamed. For when they desecrate that flag, they desecrate Carney’s sacrifice.