The Trail of Tears: A journey of remorse that must be remembered

January 7, 2010

Painting: Trail of Tears, Robert Lindneux, 1942

Anyone of the “Greatest Generation” still living and the generation that is their sons and daughters knows of the “Bataan Death March.”

The forced march of over 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war by the Japanese army during May of 1942 is historical testament to the evil man can inflict upon his fellow man.

For over 60 miles, they were subjected to a level of brutality Americans, military or civilian, had never before encountered. In the end, thousands never arrived at their destination camps.

Rifle butt beatings, throat slashing, bayonet stabbings, days without food and water — they all took their toll, a toll estimated as high as over a quarter of those who started the march.

Eventually considered a “war crime,” on April 3,1946, the Japanese commander at the time of the march, Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, was executed for his role in the atrocities.

This week, we remember another journey. A journey not of 60 miles, but of over a thousand. A journey also defined by cruelty, indifference and great loss of life. But this journey did not involve wartime combatants an ocean away.

This journey occurred in our own backyard under the “protection” of the United States Army and with the “approval” of the United States Supreme Court. (“Protection” being only that the Army wasn’t turned loose to slaughter as the Japanese soldiers were, “approval” in that the race that had the power made the law, and the law at the time was that all other races had to go.)

Its victims were innocent men, women and children whose only crime was to have been born in a certain land at a certain time. Its toll was also thousands dead along its path.

This American journey is the Trail of Tears, and it is one of the darkest blots on the timeline that is this nation’s historical record.

On Jan. 4, 1839, the first contingent of the Cherokee Nation ordered forcibly removed from northern Georgia began arriving at Fort Gibson, Okla., for resettlement.

Thousands more would follow over the coming weeks. All would have their own “Tale of Tears” to tell, and all would spend the rest of their lives uttering one word: Why?

The methods may have been indifference, disease and starvation rather than rifle butts and bayonets, but the result was the same. As much as a quarter of the Cherokee Nation never saw journey’s end, their remains and their memories scattered in shallow graves along a thousand miles of American frontier.

It seems unimaginable today that Americans could ever behave in such a way, but we did, and it should not be ignored and it should most certainly never be forgotten.

This country’s done a lot of good since its founding, but it’s also done some very bad, and one of the worst of that bad is the Trail of Tears.

There are many current rumblings regarding “freedom” and “liberty” and how much should be taken from the “haves” to be redistributed to the “have-nots.”

Today we would all do well to suspend quibbling over the material and take pause of the truly important in life.

We should reflect upon the fact that there was a time in this country that basic human rights were denied arbitrarily and capriciously to entire groups of peoples, for but only the politics of the day. Politics that denied “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” for no other reason than “being in the way.”

Such times should be steadfastly studied as a stark lesson of the consequences when otherwise good people turn their backs and bury their heads; a constant reminder that humanity encompasses all races, and none should ever be denied the inalienable rights of that humanity.

That in our ever-forward march to advance, we never again leave behind another Trail of Tears.

(Author’s note:  This column originally appeared in the print edition of the Joplin Globe.  Click  here to view their online extra on the topic.  The trail is now under the protection of the National Park service and has routes through Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee.  Visit the National Park Service Historic Trails website  for more information.



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