After the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Center, three firefighters, Daniel McWilliams, George Johnson and William “Billy” Eisengrein, were photographed in an iconic picture of them raising the American flag at Ground Zero.
In 2017, when McWilliams joined a memorial mass to honor deceased members of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal group of black FDNY firefighters, he was barred from holding a flag in the color guard. When he asked to be part of the color guard, the president of the society, Regina Wilson, then Vulcan Society president, asked McWilliams to “help in a different capacity” because he was not black.
That precipitated a racial bias complaint from McWilliams to New York’s Division of Human Rights.
According to the lawsuit, McWilliams was initially selected by the FDNY Ceremonial Unit to serve as a flag bearer in the color guard for the Memorial Mass, but Wilson removed him as she had specifically requested an all-black color guard.
“The lawsuit also contains a screenshot of a text exchange with Wilson, in which she writes, ‘Please know that l have asked Lt Williams to help in a different capacity for the ceremony today. l want to have (an) all black color guard and have asked one of my members to stand in,’” CNN reported, adding, “A complaint was filed on McWilliams’ behalf to the FDNY’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, and the investigation concluded that there was ‘sufficient credible and corroborating evidence’ that he was excluded from the color guard because of his race, the lawsuit states.”
At the trial, Cecilia Loving, the Deputy Commissioner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Fire Department of New York City, was asked by McWilliams’ attorney, Keith Sullivan, “So, a request for an all-black color guard is not discriminatory?”
“No, it isn’t,” Loving replied. When Sullivan queried if it were acceptable to ask for an all-black color guard, she answered, “Most definitely.” She also stated that such an action was justified “uplift our identities and our separate ethnicities in order to instill a sense of pride and community and support for one another,” the New York Post reported.
Sullivan argued in his brief that there was a double standard in the FDNY, asserting, “If you’re black and you discriminate against a white person in the workplace, you get a slap on the wrist at best.”
The story of the flag itself: “A vibrant American flag, flying from the back of a boat moored very near the Twin Towers, managed to survive the destruction of the World Trade Center 12 years ago. Someone removed the flag from the boat on September 11th. Thomas Franklin, a photographer for the New Jersey newspaper The Record, took a searing photograph of that flag as it was raised by three fire fighters above the smoldering rubble on the evening of the terrorist attacks. That image immediately became one of the archetypical photographs of the disaster,” CNN reported in 2013.