Since the American Revolution, black soldiers have fought for - even died for - the United States. But why? Why did they risk life and limb for a country that, until 50 years ago, rarely acknowledged their service and sacrifice?
"For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots," a new PBS documentary airing this month, answers that question. "Like all Americans in all wars, African-Americans fought for the love of liberty - the one thing we all fought for and all cherished," director Frank Martin says.
"For Love of Liberty" chronicles the military contributions of black Americans, from Crispus Attucks - an escaped slave who was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War - to those engaged in today's war on terrorism. Filmed in high definition, the film uses letters, diaries, speeches, journalistic accounts and first-person stories, many never before heard or seen.
"We've uncovered probably every scrap of film that has been shot on this subject," Martin says. "We've got footage of the Buffalo Soldiers marching off to Cuba in 1898 for the Spanish-American War. It's probably the oldest film we have in the documentary. It's extraordinary stuff."
"For Love of Liberty" enlists numerous actors, politicians, musicians and celebrities, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who introduces the film, and actress Halle Berry as on-camera host. "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" actor Avery Brooks narrates, while others - Mel Gibson, Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Ice-T, and the late Walter Cronkite and Isaac Hayes - lend their voices.
Actor Louis Gossett Jr., who won an Academy Award for "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1982, signed on as executive producer almost immediately. "This documentary and documentaries like it are essential for generations to come, so we can get along a little bit better and become comfortable with diversity," Gossett says.
He and Martin chose not to include any interviews, relying only on first-person accounts.
"The result is a film that works on a visceral level," Martin says. "It's intended to be emotional. It's intended to be, in places, heartbreaking, which you can never achieve with a dispassionate interview with a historian."
That intensified the research process, which unearthed plenty of rarities. "We found about 15 minutes of color 16-mm film of the Tuskegee Airmen flying those red-tailed P-51 Mustangs of theirs (in World War II). It was with a camera, not footage that was shot out the window or gunfight footage."
In addition, filmmakers traveled to military cemeteries around the country and abroad to find graves of black U.S. servicemembers. "Right outside of Cleveland there was a nondescript private cemetery for Cpl. Clinton Greaves, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Indian Wars, a Buffalo Soldier," Martin says. "The country is full of those. I would encourage anybody looking to touch this in a very tangible way to go visit them."
Gossett says he enjoyed being actively engaged in crafting "For Love of Liberty."
"So many stories in this documentary haven't been told," he says. "We need to be thirsty for information and stories we might not think we identify with. We're going to a place that is making us a little bit more homogeneous. We are trusting each other, and now the country is beginning to get its true character. It's very exciting to be alive and watching it, and to be somewhat instrumental in some of the stories that are coming out."
"For Love of Liberty" will begin airing in February. Click here for air times in your areas.