The nation’s expert on Waco’s Pearl Harbor hero is, naturally, a Baylor prof
Waco native Doris Miller was one of the first American heroes of World War II, and a civil rights icon whose heroism at Pearl Harbor helped desegregate the U.S. military — all before his tragic death at age 24.
When Dr. T. Michael Parrish, the Linden G. Bowers Professor of American History at Baylor, began researching Miller’s story, he knew he was going to be telling the story of an American hero. But in his research, Parrish (pictured, above right) discovered that Miller’s legacy and impact were far greater than he initially realized.
First, a bit of Miller’s story… Born in Waco in 1919, Miller played football at A.J. Moore High School before dropping out and enlisting in the U.S. Navy. When the attack on Pearl Harbor began on Dec. 7, 1941, Miller was below deck collecting laundry. Institutionalized discrimination within the Navy ensured that Miller could rank no higher than that of a cook or “messman,” but they couldn’t keep him from demonstrating his mettle under duress. In the chaos after the attack, he moved his injured commanding officer to a safe location and, as his ship began to sink, manned an anti-aircraft gun and fired at Japanese aircraft until the ammunition was used up. Then, he turned his attention to the water, oil-slicked and aflame, and began pulling injured soldiers to safety. For his efforts, Miller later became the first Black American to be awarded the Navy Cross (pictured, above left), the highest decoration for valor in combat after the Medal of Honor.
Parrish — also a Waco native, and the son of a Pearl Harbor veteran — knew this part of Miller’s story as he began his research, but not much more. As he dug into the history, Parrish realized hat the Navy had not been eager to highlight the heroism of a man who was limited to the ship’s lowest jobs by their own discriminatory practices. But Miller’s mantle was carried by the African American press and northern lawmakers, eventually leading to the Navy Cross. Returning home, Miller began to speak publicly in support of the U.S. war effort, and his experiences birthed in him a desire to push for full civil rights for Black Americans.
It’s here that Parrish says Miller’s impact has been under-appreciated.
“Historians talk about the long civil rights movement, stretching all the way back to the colonial era,” he explains. “Military actions have long played a role in that. African American men participated in military action with white Americans in the American Revolution and subsequent wars. They did these things with a purpose, like Doris Miller — to show their patriotism and prove not only their fighting ability as worthy of respect, but to show their citizenship and prove their merit as full citizens of the United States, willing to fight and die… World War II brought permanent results, and Miller was a catalyst. These moments were integral in pushing forward the civil rights movement to the crescendo that we now recognize and emphasize from the 1960s.”
Miller never got the chance to see how the movement played out; he was killed in action at the age of 24 in the Battle of Malkin in 1943. But appreciation for his outsized impact in American life continues to grow.
A Doris Miller memorial was dedicated in Waco in 2018 — just across the Brazos River from Baylor’s Clifton Robinson Tower — and Parrish’s book, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement, is the first scholarly biography to study his achievements.
In 2020, the U.S. Navy announced that a supercarrier would be named for Miller — the first supercarrier named for an enlisted sailor or for a Black American. At a ceremony on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Pearl Harbor last year, the Secretary of the Navy used Parrish’s words to explain the reason for the honor:
“Doris Miller’s heroic actions at Pearl Harbor, and his quiet but persuasive voice as an advocate for positive change, constituted a vital contribution toward the full and equal acceptance of Black men and women in the U.S. Navy and the nation that it serves.”
Sic ’em, Doris Miller and Dr. Parrish!
[Learn more about Miller and Parrish’s research in this Spring 2021 Baylor Magazine feature.]