Tom Durwood

is an assistant professor of English at Valley Forge Military Academy and College

President Obama recently told an interviewer, "I make a mistake every hour, every day." This is a good sign.

We all make mistakes, but we won't all admit it. When that happens at the presidential level, there can be far-reaching harm. One spectacular, yet little known, example occurred during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.

On Nov. 5, 1906, Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 members of the all-black 25th Infantry, who had been falsely accused in the shooting death of a white bartender in Brownsville, Texas, that summer. Historian Lewis L. Gould would later call Roosevelt's action "one of the most glaring miscarriages of justice in American history."

Ohio Sen. Joe Foraker objected, and asked for a trial so the soldiers could speak in their own defense. "They ask for no favors because they are Negroes, but only for justice because they are men," he said. A New York Times editorial concluded that Roosevelt had done a great wrong.

But the president refused to reverse his decision. The men were dismissed without honor or trial, denied pensions, and barred from civil service positions. Roosevelt would never admit having made a mistake in the case and there is no mention of it in his autobiography.

Sixty years later, a writer named John D. Weaver embarked on a campaign to exonerate the soldiers. He dug up the documents of the original trials and Senate hearings on the episode, and visited the small Texas town where the soldiers had been stationed.

Weaver published The Brownsville Raid in 1970, setting forth the true story of the events that led to Roosevelt's order. The book prompted immediate calls for a reinvestigation.

In 1972, the Army found the men of the 25th Infantry innocent, and they were subsequently pardoned and awarded honorable discharges by President Richard M. Nixon. The last survivor among the accused, Dorsie Willis, was awarded a pension.

In a 2006 ceremony marking the centennial of the Brownsville case, U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, an Army veteran from Texas, said, "Today, we take a hard look at our past. When we acknowledge our mistakes, we become better citizens."

He continued: "I am here to honor those 167 soldiers." The crowd applauded. "What we're doing today - in acknowledging these events - this is going to bless our community," he said.

High school students then read every one of the 167 names, and planted a flag in honor of each soldier. Finally, Roosevelt's 1906 mistake had been corrected.

Today we have a president who is quick to admit his foibles. "I make a mistake every hour, every day," he said. Such frankness means that a misstep can be corrected, and we can all get on the right path.

E-mail Tom Durwood at tdurwood@gmail.com.