Fort McCoy News March 13, 2015

Fort McCoy observes African-American History Month

STORY & PHOTO BY SCOTT T. STURKOL
Public Affairs Staff

Some of the best advice retired Brig. Gen. Alton Berry said he ever received came from his father — if one thing doesn't work, try the next best thing.

The former deputy commander of the 88th Regional Support Command shared more about his father's advice, philosophies of African-American leaders, and a historical overview as guest speaker for Fort McCoy's observance of African-American History Month Feb. 26 at McCoy's Community Club.

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Retired Brig. Gen. Alton Berry, former deputy commander of the 88th Regional Support Command, gives his presentation Feb. 26 during the Fort McCoy's observance of African-American History Month at McCoy's Community Club.

Berry, a 31-year Army veteran who resides in Racine, Wis., works as a school supervisor for the Racine Unified School District. As an educator, he creates and implements strategies that support an interactive learning environment for students. In his presentation, he sought to educate the audience about the status of African-Americans in the post-civil-rights era.

Disparities still exist

Many historians classify America's civil-rights movement as having taken place between 1954 and 1968. The movement encompassed an effort in the United States to end racial segregation and discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 set in motion a federally recognized change to race relations in America, but since then, Berry said, it has been a long road to equality and many disparities remain. As an example, he discussed the American criminal justice system.

"In 2005, African-Americans constituted 14 percent of drug use in this country, yet they were 34 percent of persons arrested for drug offenses and 53 percent of people who were convicted for drug offenses," Berry said.

"The presence of racial profiling in these areas does not suggest that all law-enforcement officials engage in this behavior. In fact, in recent years, many law-enforcement agencies have initiated training and oversight regulations designed to prevent and identify such practices. However, some behaviors still persist to some degree and clearly overshadow efforts to promote racial justice."

Berry said the current status of America's criminal-justice system should raise concerns among Americans. In some areas, he said, the rate of incarceration in "communities of color" affects children's lives and needs to change.

"The system has become a fixture of the lifecycle of many ethnic and racial minorities," Berry said. "The impact of such a dramatic rate of imprisonment has had a profound consequence on children in these households. This strategy has contributed to the eroding of trust in the justice system and in communities of color."

Finding solutions

Improving racial relations and justice in America requires effort, Berry said. Efforts such as integration and support can provide a powerful message.

Berry said he made such an effort when he moved with his family from Georgia to Wisconsin to serve at Fort McCoy and was looking for a church to join.

"We were members of an African-American church when we were in Georgia," Berry said. "But it came to a point when I decided that I'm not doing anything to help resolve issues, so I moved my family to a predominantly white church even though there are African-American and Hispanic places nearby. We did that because … if I didn't want to be a part of the problem, I had to submit to another alternative."

Berry said switching churches was a good decision because his new church is a place for everyone.

"The worship service is not as emotional as the African-American services, but the essence is certainly genuine," Berry said. "Is it a perfect church? No. But we have homeless. We have business owners. We have people who are in transition."

Prior to coming to Fort McCoy, Berry said he visited with a woman who was a part of the civil-rights movement and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said she shared an experience she had with King.

"She said the most impressionable thing she remembers was when she was in a (meeting) with Dr. King," Berry said. "She said to him that there are no poor white people. Dr. King challenged her on that.

"He told her, 'You have a lot to learn,'" Berry said. "And it's true. Her position was an eye-opener because (equality) is not a one-way conversation. Instead of allowing or tolerating the problem, we all have to be a part of the solution."

Personal perseverance

Rising to the rank of brigadier general in the Army meant getting past many life hurdles that started at a young age, Berry said.

To get through it all, he said, he stuck to the sage advice he'd received from those who have inspired him.

"There are three philosophies that I follow," Berry said. "One is that of Dr. King and his message of hope. Another is Malcolm X's 'by any means necessary.' For me, I do have caveats to that, but the intent is always to do something.

"The other is probably the best advice I have had, and that comes from my father," Berry said. "He said, 'If one thing doesn't work, try the next best thing.' It was very simple. My father did not have a formal education. He never graduated — he went as far as the second grade — but that advice from him has helped me in many ways."

In elementary school, Berry said he once was expelled for challenging his teachers.

"The worst feeling that I had was when I came home with that (expulsion) letter," Berry said. "My father was a disciplinarian, so you can imagine what I was expecting."

After reading the letter and hearing his story, Berry said his father told him to write a letter of apology to the head teacher. "It worked," he said. "I wrote that if she allows me to come back to school, I will not disobey the rules anymore, and that's what I did."

Through high school, college, and after joining the military, Berry said he continued to go through ups and downs, including once being relieved of his leadership position by a battalion commander. He fought on and made his way to the Army

Reserve and continued his service for more than three decades.

"I just kept following the advice of my father — 'If one thing doesn't work, try the next best thing.'"

For more information about observances in the Fort McCoy community, call the Equal Opportunity adviser at 608-388-3246.