On January 27, 2016, the world lost a national treasure with the passing of Ms. Alyce Dixon. At the time of her death, she was the oldest living female World War II veteran. As I mourn the anniversary of her loss, the world is a very different place.
I very much miss the sage advice of my friend and mentor.
In 2015, I spent a week with Ms. Alyce over Christmas in Washington, D.C. I cherished her company because she was one of those people who was filled with joy and freely shared her heart, regardless of her circumstances. Yes, she spoke and moved a bit more slowly at 108 than she did at 103 — her age when my children and I said goodbye to her as we prepared to transfer from Washington, D.C. to Pensacola for my last military assignment — but Ms. Alyce was still more vibrant than most people I knew who were half her age.
Over the course of my visit, Ms. Alyce and I talked about many different topics. Her advice had a centenarian’s breadth of experience. I most enjoyed hearing more about her stories from World War II and the challenges she faced returning home to a segregated country after experiencing unprecedented freedom in Europe, even during war. She described the respect received from Europeans as something she never experienced as a “negro” woman in the United States.
I would love the opportunity to sit by Ms. Alyce’s side once again to listen to her thoughts about current world events. Given all that she and the members of her unit, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, experienced as the only all African-American, all woman unit to serve overseas during World War II, my guess is that she would not be pleased. Although the 6888th deployed in support of the soldiers who battled on the front lines, their personal war included the very soldiers they served.
Such is the insidious nature of sexism, racism, segregation, and discrimination.
In 1945, the 6888th deployed to Birmingham, England to deliver a backlog of more than seven million pieces of mail detrimentally impacting soldier morale at the request of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. They joined the Army after racial and gender bans lifted. Of all the battles Ms. Alyce fought within her 108-year lifetime, especially during World War II, I doubt she would believe that the issues currently under attack in America would rear their heads again.
As debates rage regarding the possible deportation of American Muslims, I believe Ms. Alyce would share the valor of first generation Japanese-American “Nisei” soldiers during World War II. The 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most highly decorated unit of its size, fought to prove their allegiance to America while their families were held in internment camps. As talks of a wall separating Mexico from America ensue, she might discuss the Hispanic unit that provided anti-aircraft protection after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 200th Coast Artillery unit.
There are countless examples of units that were marginalized due to race or gender like the 6888th, such as Navajo “Code Talkers” who provided communications that could never be broken by the Nazi’s, and the Tuskegee Airmen, trained by our own Pensacola-born hero, General Daniel “Chappie” James, the first African-American four-star general. These units were not recognized for at least half a century for their service. Stories of military valor involving minorities were rarely told — that truth doubled when issues of gender come into play.
The 6888th and the Tuskegee Airmen would have never had the opportunity to serve without the intervention and advocacy of allies such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. Ms. Alyce remained a strong advocate for military servicewomen. She often bragged about the women who currently enjoy the legacy of her unit’s service, frequently bragging with great pride, “Women can do anything!”
Allies and advocates will be incredibly important in the pending fight for human rights.
I believe that if she were still with us, Ms. Alyce would have participated in the Women’s March on Washington last weekend, January 20, 2017, one day after the presidential inaguration. In my mind’s eye, I can see her out there in her motorized wheelchair with the 1.2 million other participants, chanting “Women’s Rights are Human Rights!” She was the epitome of extroversion, and I know she would have relished in the collective energy of the largest global effort in history, enjoying five million participants worldwide.
Never one to bite her lip or withhold a view, Ms. Alyce often used jokes to break the ice. I thought of her often when I read commentary referring to participants in the Women’s March as “crude” and “unladylike.” To that, I believe Ms. Alyce would say, “Thank you very much.” She was sassy and loved to tell jokes, believing strongly in the power of laughter. She lived life intentionally with a grateful heart, and never took anything very seriously except her love for her sisters in service.
In Ms. Alyce’s America (which was not very long ago), women were recruited to serve due to unprecedented male casualties. America needed more bodies on the front lines. Stateside, Caucasian women were recruited from their roles as housewives through the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign to build munitions in factories. African-American women were also recruited, but they often held employment outside of home.
At war’s end, no one expected women to want to continue their employment, creating a huge rift that continues to this day. “Feminism” is not a dirty word, it is simply the belief that women and men are equal. That definition is not a contradiction regarding one’s personal faith, but rather an assessment of individual value.
According to the Women’s March official website, the women who marched last weekend did so for a myriad of reasons, one being equal pay. Women continue to be paid twenty percent less on average than a man fulfilling the same job. Some who participated did so to fight sexual objectification, wearing “pussycat-eared hats” as they marched to make a statement that spoke volumes.
As the debate continues regarding women’s reproductive rights, one key element that is frequently and conveniently overlooked is the responsibility of their male partners. In the military, such objectification and passive response readily translates into sexual assault, an embarrassment that continues to plague every branch of service. Until women are recognized and valued for their full contributions, they will continue to be objectified by sexists and mocked by pro-sexists who benefit from their effort.
Ms. Alyce and I served in a male-dominated military; similar domination continues in countless industries, often resulting in discussions and decisions being made by men who have no personal concept of what they are debating, challenging, or terminating. Women and their allies marched last weekend as they have countless times before to have their voices heard. They demand entry into the rooms where decisions are made.
The trouble with history is that there is nothing new under the sun.
Ms. Alyce lived from 1907 to 2016. Women fought for their rights throughout the entire span of her life, and continued to do so after her passing. A women’s march is not new. In 1913, the “Women’s Suffrage Parade” took place in Washington, DC. the day prior to President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to “march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.”
Women marched and protested for the right to vote. Today, women enjoy the right to vote without realizing that right came from suffragists who were mocked, hit, and even burned with cigar butts by male onlookers. Even in this march, race once again reared its ugly head, with African-American women being directed to march in the back of the procession. Civil Rights Activist and Suffragist Ida B. Wells refused, joining the march from the middle after the front row passed. Like the legacy of the strong women who succeeded Ms. Wells, every victory, regardless of its size, leaves a lasting impact.
The trouble with history is that success often depends on interpretation. If one is not looking for issues of discrimination, they are rarely seen.
The mission and vision for the 2017 Women’s March on Washington stated, “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health and our families – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.” I seriously doubt that those who demonized the march knew its purpose. It is an effort to be celebrated and supported.
Non-violent protest is the backbone of change, from civil rights to human rights. There are countless examples within Pensacola alone, to include the African-American youth who participated in a sit-in during the 1960’s for 707 days to desegregate Woolworth’s Department Store in downtown Pensacola. Theirs was the longest effort of its kind, but there is not a single photo to be found in the University of West Florida Historic Trust of this remarkable event.
To create change requires diligence, determination, and stamina — characteristics held by Ms. Alyce and the 6888th. During our visit, she asked me to continue to tell her story and passed away less than one month after our visit. If today’s disenfranchised hope to have similar success as these members of the “Greatest Generation,” it would be prudent to continue to study the past to determine strategies for future success.
The pending battle for women’s rights and respect may be wrought with many challenges, but victory is possible. A review of history will show countless long-fought battles, efforts that deserve more respect and review than swift dissolution with the stroke of a pen. The battle for women’s rights includes protection for violence against women, an effort that can only be won with the support of allies and advocates in support of America’s women, mothers, sisters, and daughters.
As I remember my beloved mentor on the anniversary of her passing, her experiences and dedication duty stand alone. Women have voluntarily fought in every American war to protect the country that they love. We cannot allow ignorance of yesterday’s sacrifice to condone today’s apathy. The question remains, will America fight to protect its women?
In the words of Rosie the Riveter, I honestly believe that together, “We Can Do It!”