Home News 83 Years After His Killing, a Black Soldier Gets an Army Funeral

83 Years After His Killing, a Black Soldier Gets an Army Funeral

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83 Years After His Killing, a Black Soldier Gets an Army Funeral

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In a Georgia cemetery, surrounded by tombstones cracked and worn by decades of rain and sun, Pvt. Albert King’s gleams new and bright. The Army unveiled it Sunday in a full military funeral, 83 years late.

Since 1941 his body has rested in an unmarked grave near the military base where a white military police officer shot and killed him.

Though Private King enlisted to fight in World War II, it was a fight with white bus drivers and soldiers on a segregated bus that cost him his life. After he escaped the bus and ran, the police officer found him, killed him and was exonerated in a sham military trial the same day.

An Army investigation initially found that Private King had died in the line of duty. But, under pressure from the commanding general at the base, Fort Benning, the investigators reversed their decision and determined that his death was a result of his own misconduct — making him ineligible for a military funeral. That was the official story, until three years ago.

In 2021, the facts of the case came to light in a legal brief and investigative reporting. Three lawyers from the firm Morgan Lewis, all veterans and working pro bono, argued that the Army Board for Correction of Military Records should reinstate the original decision that King died in the line of duty. In 2022, they won.

“His name was stained, and we needed to cleanse that stain,” said Rose Zoltek-Jick, a law professor at Northeastern University and associate director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which researches racially motivated Jim Crow-era homicides.

The memorial for Private King, eight decades in the making, is the Army’s latest effort to correct its record on race going back to the Civil War.

It has renamed nine bases originally named for Confederate generals, including Fort Benning, now known as Fort Moore.

Last year, the Army overturned the convictions of 110 Black soldiers accused of rioting in Houston in 1917. Nineteen of them had been executed.

In 2021, it installed a memorial for Pvt. Felix Hall, who was lynched on Fort Benning about a month before Private King was killed.

An Army spokeswoman, Heather J. Hagan, said in a statement, “The Army puts a high priority on honoring the legacy of all our soldiers and their families, especially when there is an error or injustice, as there was in the case of Pvt. Albert King.”

Helen Russell, Private King’s cousin, has been his primary advocate. Though they never met — she was born a generation after his death — she feels connected to him by the chain of care that makes a family tree: She buried her father, and her father buried Private King’s brother, who had been the soldier’s only immediate family when he was killed.

It is unclear from the records who buried Private King.

Ms. Russell pursued the military memorial with the help of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and her lawyers, Matthew Hawes, Micah Jones and Christopher Melendez. They had trouble gaining traction at first, but Ms. Russell’s congressman from Michigan, Shri Thanedar, helped get the Army’s attention.

“None of this would’ve been possible if not for the Board of Officers’ action back in ’41, which really documented what happened at the time,” Mr. Melendez said. “It was the witnesses who spoke before the board. It was Judge Hastie.”

William H. Hastie, a prominent Black judge and lawyer who worked in the top echelons of the War Department in the early 1940s, called Private King’s death the “callous and wanton shooting of an unarmed soldier” and argued that the man had died in the line of duty. Judge Hastie left the department soon after, fed up that his broad-based efforts to advocate for Black service members had been routinely ignored.

Top leaders from Fort Moore attended the ceremony on Sunday, including Major General Curtis A. Buzzard, the commanding general, and Colonel Colin P. Mahle, garrison commander.

Representative Sanford Bishop of Georgia, who represents Fort Moore and identified himself as a descendant of slaves and a child of Jim Crow, spoke at Private King’s grave.

“Today, after 83 years, the arc has finally bent toward justice,” he said.

In an interview, he spoke of Dr. Thomas Brewer, a Black physician and a founder of the local NAACP chapter, who alerted Judge Hastie to the King case — and who was later shot dead in a racial killing. “He was an unsung hero,” Mr. Bishop said through tears.

This was the defining theme of the memorial: that a succession of citizens, soldiers, family, advocates, lawyers and journalists had spoken up for Private King, starting in 1941, until his name was cleared.

When it came time to choose an inscription for the headstone, Ms. Russell said, the words came immediately: “For my beloved cousin I fought the fight.”

The fight continues. At the memorial Sunday, she announced her intention to have Private King’s story incorporated into the school curriculum where she lives in Michigan.

“The children will be taught what they need to know,” she said.

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