The Ongoing Effort for Inclusion in the Military
The Ongoing Effort for Inclusion in the Military
ADAPTED FROM ESSAYS BY BARBARA SAVAGE, UNIVERSITY OF
African Americans have served in literally every war fought by the United States, yet in most of those wars their participation was severely limited by policies that enforced racial exclusion, restrictions, and segregation in the military. Such policies were eased and gradually eliminated after the conclusion of World War II, but only as the result of a persistent campaign of protest by African Americans. The experience of African Americans in the military reflects gradual shifts over time in the political and legal status of African Americans generally and in the federal government's role in racial relations.
In each war the nation has fought, a recurring pattern of conflict and debate has emerged over the military's racial policies. Most African Americans believed that military service provided them with opportunities to perform tasks and display qualities denied them in civilian life. They also believed that the opportunity to serve, and to serve well, would bolster their claims for the full rights of citizenship and democracy that the white majority continued to withhold from them. Many white Americans, because of their prejudiced belief in black inferiority and persistent fears of black rebellion, supported policies that severely limited the numbers of African Americans permitted to serve and that relegated them to tasks far removed from combat.
Only in the crisis of war were some of these racially restrictive policies lifted, but only to the extent necessary to win, and only for the duration of the war. Once the emergency passed, the importance of the military service African Americans had rendered was disparaged and denied and the original racial restrictions were reimposed. Although the circumstances differed with each war, this conflict over how to employ African Americans in the military was repeated from colonial times through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. In response, African Americans conducted a long campaign for equal opportunity in the military. Their efforts culminated, in 1948, in President Harry S. Truman's (1884-1972) executive order eliminating racial segregation and discrimination in the armed services. This opened the way for the first time to a racially integrated national defense and full opportunities for African Americans in the armed forces.
THE CIVIL WAR
African Americans were made a permanent feature of the U.S. military during the Civil War. Initially, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was as reluctant as George Washington to enlist African Americans as soldiers. But by 1863, faced with the prospect of losing the war, Lincoln authorized the employment of African American soldiers in the Union army.
African Americans responded eagerly to this opportunity, and soon black soldiers made up between 9 and 10 percent of the Union army's total numbers. By war's end, over 186,000 African Americans had enlisted in the Union army, about half of them from the slave states that had seceded and the remainder from border and free states. These troops were divided into segregated regiments commanded by white officers and, in some rare cases, by black commissioned officers. Initially black soldiers were paid far less than their white counterparts, but after blacks repeatedly objected, the federal government in 1864 authorized equal pay for blacks and whites of equal rank.
African American troops participated in virtually every battle and in every theater of operations, winning many awards for valor along the way. Nearly forty thousand African American soldiers died in the Civil War, losing their lives in a proportion far exceeding their numbers in the army. The outcome of the Civil War, which brought freedom to enslaved African Americans, was significantly influenced by the sacrifice and service of African American troops.
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE CAVALRY
In recognition of the exemplary service of African American soldiers during the Civil War, Congress in 1866 authorized for the first time four black units in the standing army—the Ninth and Tenth U.S. cavalry regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth infantry regiments. These outfits were used extensively to protect white settlers in the Southwest and the plains states, often fighting against Native Americans in that region. They were stationed at various times at forts and outposts in Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, these units of African American soldiers joined the campaign, as did several other newly formed black outfits from various states. During this war, the military continued to resist commissioning black officers to head these all-black units, which with few exceptions remained under the direction of white officers. Soldiers from the original four black units fought in Cuba and the Philippines. Black soldiers in the Ninth and Tenth cavalries were credited with salvaging the battle for San Juan Hill when Theodore Roosevelt's (1858-1919) Rough Riders, the First Volunteer Cavalry, faltered.
WORLD WAR I
Just before the outbreak of World War I, there were 750,000 men in the regular army and National Guard, but only 20,000 of them were African Americans. Policies of racial exclusion prevented great numbers of black men from serving in those units in peacetime. When the military buildup for war began in 1917 with the imposition of a mandatory enlistment policy, African American men responded enthusiastically, and over 367,000 of them were called to serve. Now, in a change of military policy, more than 600 black men were commissioned as officers.
Again, as in previous wars, African Americans who wanted to serve were met with racial restrictions and conditions that limited their assignments and the duties they were allowed to perform. The Marine Corps refused them entry altogether, and the navy restricted them to menial jobs. Black women nurses repeatedly petitioned to be permitted to serve overseas, but the military refused them that opportunity until after the fighting had ended. Nearly 90 percent of all black servicemen were in the army, and, apart from the men assigned to newly created black combat units, they belonged primarily to service or labor units. Such units were extremely important to the war effort, however. Black men unloaded tons of supplies and equipment from military ships, built roads, drove trucks, and helped build and maintain the physical infrastructure necessary for war.
During the war, new black combat units were created in the Ninety-second and Ninety-third divisions. The infantry regiments of the Ninety-third were attached to the French army. One of those units, the 369th Infantry, fought alongside the French against German troops, setting a record for service by staying in the trenches for 191 days. The 369th never yielded, nor were any of its members ever captured. The French military exalted these African American soldiers for their bravery and service, awarding the entire 369th the Croix de Guerre and singling out nearly two hundred of the men for individual awards, including the Legion of Honor for exceptional courage in battle. At a time when the U.S. military refused to use African Americans fully as combat troops, when their sacrifices and service were denied and denigrated, the French government's recognition of the gallantry and loyalty of African American soldiers stood out in sharp contrast.
Although the U.S. military continued to maintain policies of racial discrimination and segregation during World War II, African Americans had greater and wider opportunities to serve than in any previous war. During the course of the war, the Marine Corps and the navy, which had traditionally excluded blacks or assigned them limited roles, gradually opened their ranks. The Women's Auxiliary Corps was also formed, and by the war's end more than four thousand African American women had joined. The famous Tuskegee Airmen were members of the Ninety-ninth Pursuit Squadron, an all-black fighter unit that trained nearly six hundred pilots. Officer candidate training schools were opened to blacks during the war, expanding the pool of African American commissioned officers.
These changes in military policy were the result of several factors. African Americans continued to protest aggressively against being asked to serve the cause of democracy in a military that sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination. In the light of Adolph Hitler's racist, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic claims, the United States found its own racial policies—in civilian life and in the armed services—under increasing scrutiny from the international community. African Americans were being asked to share the burdens of war against Hitlerism and fascism, while they themselves were still denied freedom and equal opportunity at home.
That contradiction in turn fueled the demands of many African Americans for fair play, beginning with the military itself. At a time when a unified home front was essential to the success of the war, federal officials, including those in the military, felt pressured to make changes in the racial policies affecting African Americans in the armed services. Segregation and discriminatory treatment remained in place for the duration of the war, but significant steps toward eliminating disparate treatment were put in place. In 1940, for example, Benjamin O. Davis (1877-1970) became the first African American to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
During World War II, approximately one million African American men and women served in the armed services, half of them overseas. Again, as in World War I, black men in significant numbers provided the labor needed for conducting the war. They made up almost half of the transportation corps and truck companies and played a large role in helping to rebuild Europe. There were twenty-two black combat units that fought, among other places, at the Battle of the Bulge and in six European countries.
DESEGREGATION OF THE MILITARY
When World War II ended, some of the racially discriminatory policies that had been eased during the war were reimposed, including a limitation on the number of blacks that would be allowed to reenlist. Throughout the war, African Americans had vehemently protested the continuation of segregated fighting and service units. Although there had been some shift in thinking about race relations as a result of the protests, the war ended with the policies still in place.
The campaign to desegregate the military continued after the war's end. When a new law was passed instituting a peacetime draft, the African American leader A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) threatened to urge young black men to boycott the draft unless segregation was ended. In response, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, establishing a committee to prepare and plan for the end of the segregated military.SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS Executive Order 8802 and Desegregation and the Peace-time Draft
By 1950, a quota limiting black enlistments had been lifted, and military personnel began to be assigned without regard to race. When the Korean War began in June 1950, these policy changes allowed for the gradual integration of the armed forces. By the end of the war, almost all the army's units had been racially integrated.
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE VIETNAM WAR
The Vietnam War was the first American war fought with fully integrated armed forces. African Americans were able to serve in all branches without regard to race. Blacks served in a proportion slightly greater than their share of the general population, with most serving in the army, which sustained the greatest casualties of war. In 1967, African Americans made up 11 percent of all enlisted personnel in Vietnam, but they were nearly 15 percent of the army. African American soldiers accounted for 22.4 percent of army deaths in 1966. Of the total of 58,174 Americans killed in the war, 7,264, or about 12.5 percent, were African Americans.
The Vietnam War was the subject of much dissension among the American people. Though blacks participated in fighting the war, for African American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), the conflict represented a diversion of financial resources needed to alleviate the poverty and joblessness that plagued many Americans, especially blacks. Some other black leaders were solidly supportive of the war effort and sought to keep it separate from the issues of economic and racial justice.SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT Dwight Johnson: "From Dakto to Detroit: Death of a Troubled Hero" by Jon Nordheimer
But the issue of American involvement in the war overshadowed the Civil Rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson's (1908-1973) War on Poverty. When Julian Bond (b. 1940), a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1966, they refused to seat him because of his antiwar stance. Only under a Supreme Court order was he allowed to assume the seat to which he had been elected.
The gradual desegregation of the U.S. military had begun in 1948, although complaints of racial discrimination within the military did not die. By the time of the Vietnam War, however, desegregation had brought about wider opportunities for African Americans to assume leadership roles within the military. By the 1960s, a large cadre of black officers was in place in the military, including General Colin Powell (b. 1937), who would later become national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan (b. 1911) and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George Bush (b. 1924) and Bill Clinton (b. 1946). As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell was in charge of all the branches of the military service and served as the top military adviser to the commander in chief, a position that earned him great visibility and stature during the 1991 Gulf War. Powell's career stands as an example of the expanded opportunities for African Americans in the armed services.
While the situation of African Americans in the military has changed, and in some respects improved, in the decades following the Vietnam War, it is difficult to determine whether the overall change has been positive or negative. What is certain is that many without opportunities elsewhere find stable and respectable careers in the military. As such, the U.S. military is greatly composed of African Americans, many of whom have reached positions of great authority. Despite these advancements, however, one need only look to the Persian Gulf War and the numbers of black Americans who returned with biological and chemical warfare poisoning to understand that African Americans were, as they always have been, the first to hit the ground and the group with the greatest numbers of casualties.
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Buchanan, A. Russell. Black Americans in World War II. SantaBarbara: Clio Books, 1977.
Dalfiume, Richard M. Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1953. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969.
Earley, Charity Adams. One Woman's Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.
Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Hunton, Addie W., and Katherine M. Johnson. Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces. New York: Brooklyn Eagle, 1920.
Leckie, William H. The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Calvary in the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.
Lee, Ulysses. The United States Army in World War II. Special Studies: The Employment of Negro Troops. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1966.
McPherson, James M. The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted during the War for the Union. New York:Pantheon Books, 1965.
McQuire, Philip. He, Too, Spoke for Democracy: Judge Hastie, World War II, and the Black Soldier. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Morden, Bettie J. The Women's Army Corps, 1945-1978. Washington: Center for Military History, United States Army, 1990.
Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.
——. The Negro in the Civil War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.
Scott, Lawrence P. Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen. Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994.
Terry, Wallace. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. New York: Random House, 1984.
Wynn, Neil. The Afro-American and the Second World War. London: Elek, 1979.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Executive Order 8802
On June 28, 1941, President Franklin DelanoRoosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, desegregating the nation's defense industries and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission. The order was issued in response to the call by the labor leader A. Philip Randolph for a march on Washington to protest discrimination in defense work.
Whereas it is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, in the firm belief that the democratic way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders; and
Whereas there is evidence that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity:
Now, Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes, and as a prerequisite to the successful conduct of our national defense production effort, I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin;
And it is hereby ordered as follows:
1. All departments and agencies of the Government of the United States concerned with vocational and training programs for defense production shall take special measures appropriate to assure that such programs are administered without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin;
2. All contracting agencies of the Government of the United States shall include in all defense contracts hereafter negotiated by them a provision obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin;
3. There is established in the Office of Production Management a Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which shall consist of a chairman and four other members to be appointed by the President. The Chairman and members of the Committee shall serve as such without compensation, but shall be entitled to actual and necessary transportation, subsistence, and other expenses incidental to performance of their duties. The Committee shall receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the provisions of this order and shall take appropriate steps to redress grievances which it finds to be valid. The Committee shall also recommend to the several departments and agencies of the Government of the United States and to the President all measures which may be deemed by it necessary or proper to effectuate the provisions of this order.
White House, June 25, 1941
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Desegregation and the Peace-time Draft
As the nation settled into the cold war following World War II, Congress held hearings on what was to be the first peacetime draft in American history. The armed forces remained segregated, and there was little thought of changing that until A. Philip Randolph made the following statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A staunch and proven foe of segregation in the nation's defenses, Randolph told the committee that, as long as the armed forces remained segregated, he would urge young African Americans to commit civil disobedience by resisting the proposed draft.
Randolph's listeners took him seriously, as they had in 1941 when he proposed a massive march on Washington to protest discrimination in defense-industry employment. Randolph testified on March 31, and on June 26 he organized the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience against Military Segregation. On July 26, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 declaring that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, by A. Philip Randolph
Mr. Grant Reynolds, national chairman of the Committee Against Jimcrow in Military Service and Training, has prepared for you in his testimony today a summary of wartime injustices to Negro soldiers—injustices by the military authorities and injustices by bigoted segments of the police and civilian population. The fund of material on this issue is endless, and yet, three years after the end of the war, as another crisis approaches, large numbers of white Americans are blissfully unaware of the extent of physical and psychological aggression against and oppression of the Negro soldier.
Without taking time for a thorough probe into these relevant data—a probe which could enlighten the nation—Congress may now heed Mr. Truman's call for Universal Military Training and Selective Service, and in the weeks ahead enact a jimcrow conscription law and appropriate billions for the greatest segregation system of all time. In a campaign year, when both major parties are playing cynical politics with the issue of civil rights, Negroes are about to lose the fight against jimcrowism on a national level. Our hard-won local gains in education, fair employment, hospitalization, housing are in danger of being nullified—being swept aside, Mr. Chairman, after decades of work—by a federally enforced pattern of segregation. I am not beguiled by the Army's use of the word "temporary. "Whatever may pass in the way of conscription legislation will become permanent, since the world trend is toward militarism. The Army knows this well. In such an eventuality, how could any permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission dare to criticize job discrimination in private industry if the federal government itself were simultaneously discriminating against Negro youth in military installations all over the world?
There can be no doubt of my facts. Quite bluntly, Chairman Walter G. Andrews of the House Armed Services Committee told a delegation from this organization that the War Department plans segregated white and Negro battalions if Congress passes a draft law. The Newark Evening News of March 26, 1948, confirmed this in a Washington dispatch based on official memoranda sent from Secretary Forrestal's office to the House Armed Services Committee. Nine days ago when we called this to the attention of the Commander-in-Chief in a White House conference, he indicated that he was aware of these plans for jimcrow battalions. This despite his Civil Rights message to Congress.
We have released all of this damaging information to the daily press, to leaders of both parties in Congress, and to supposedly liberal organizations. But with a relative handful of exceptions, we have found our white "friends" silent, indifferent, even hostile. Justice Roberts, who provided you last week with vigorous testimony in behalf of the President's draft recommendations, is a trustee of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a prominent Negro institution. Yet for nearly four months, Mr. Roberts has not shown us the courtesy to reply to letters asking his support for anti-segregation and civil rights safeguards in any draft law. Three days after the Newark Sunday News embarrassed Congressman Harry L. Towe in his home district by exposing his similar failure to acknowledge our correspondence, Mr. Towe, author of the UMT bill in the House, suddenly found time to answer letters which had been on his desk since December.
This situation—this conspiracy of silence, shall I say?—has naturally commanded wide publicity in the Negro press. I submit for the record a composite of newspaper clippings. In my travels around the country I have sounded out Negro public opinion and confirmed for myself the popular resentment as reflected by the Negro press. I can assure members of the Senate that Negroes do put civil rights above the high cost of living and above every other major issue of the day, as recently reported by the Fortune Opinion Poll, I believe. Even more significant is the bitter, angry mood of the Negro in his present determination to win those civil rights in a country that subjects him daily to so many insults and indignities.
With this background, gentlemen, I reported last week to President Truman that Negroes are in no mood to shoulder a gun for democracy abroad so long as they are denied democracy here at home. In particular, they resent the idea of fighting or being drafted into another jimcrow Army. I passed this information on to Mr. Truman not as threat, but rather as a frank, factual survey of Negro opinion.
Today I should like to make clear to the Senate Armed Services Committee and through you, to Congress and the American people that passage now of a jim-crow draft may only result in a mass civil disobedience movement along the lines of the magnificent struggles of the people of India against British imperialism. I must emphasize that the current agitation for civil rights is no longer a mere expression of hope on the part of Negroes. On the one hand, it is a positive, resolute outreaching for full manhood. On the other hand, it is an equally determined will to stop acquiescing in anything less. Negroes demand full, unqualified first-class citizenship.
In resorting to the principles of direct-action techniques of Gandhi, whose death was publicly mourned by many members of Congress and President Truman, Negroes will be serving a higher law than any passed by a national legislature in an era when racism spells our doom. They will be serving a law higher than any decree of the Supreme Court which in the famous Winfred Lynn case evaded ruling on the flagrantly illegal segregation practiced under the wartime Selective Service Act. In refusing to accept compulsory military segregation, Negro youth will be serving their fellow men throughout the world.
I feel qualified to make this claim because of a recent survey of American psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. The survey revealed an overwhelming belief among these experts that enforced segregation on racial or religious lines has serious and detrimental psychological effects both on the segregated groups and on those enforcing segregation. Experts from the South, I should like to point out, gentlemen, were as positive as those from other sections of the country as to the harmful effects of segregation. The views of these social scientists were based on scientific research and on their own professional experience.
So long as the Armed Services propose to enforce such universally harmful segregation not only here at home but also overseas, Negro youth have a moral obligation not to lend themselves as world-wide carriers of an evil and hellish doctrine. Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall clearly indicated in the New Jersey National Guard situation that the Armed Services do have every intention of prolonging their anthropologically hoary and untenable policies.
For 25 years now the myth has been carefully cultivated that Soviet Russia has ended all discrimination and intolerance, while here at home the American Communists have skillfully posed as champions of minority groups. To the rank-and-file Negro in World War II, Hitler's racism posed a sufficient threat for him to submit to the jimcrow Army abuses. But this factor of minority group prosecution in Russia is not present, as a popular issue, in the power struggle between Stalin and the United States. I can only repeat that this time Negroes will not take a jimcrow draft lying down. The conscience of the world will be shaken as by nothing else when thousands and thousands of us second-class Americans choose imprisonment in preference to permanent military slavery.
While I cannot with absolute certainty claim results at this hour, I personally will advise Negroes to refuse to fight as slaves for a democracy they cannot possess and cannot enjoy. Let me add that I am speaking only for myself, not even for the Committee Against Jimcrow in Military Service and Training, since I am not sure that all its members would follow my position. But Negro leaders in close touch with GI grievances would feel derelict in their duty if they did not support such a justified civil disobedience movement—especially those of us whose age would protect us from being drafted. Any other course would be a betrayal of those who place their trust in us. I personally pledge myself to openly counsel, aid and abet youth, both white and Negro, to quarantine any jimcrow conscription system, whether it bear the label of UMT or Selective Service.
I shall tell youth of all races not to be tricked by any euphonious election-year registration for a draft. This evasion, which the newspapers increasingly discuss as a convenient way out for Congress, would merely presage a synthetic "crisis" immediately after November 2nd when all talk of equality and civil rights would be branded unpatriotic while the induction machinery would move into high gear. On previous occasions I have seen the "national emergency" psychology mow down legitimate Negro demands.
From coast to coast in my travels I shall call upon all Negro veterans to join this civil disobedience movement and to recruit their younger brothers in an organized refusal to register and be drafted. Many veterans, bitter over Army jimcrow, have indicated that they will act spontaneously in this fashion, regardless of any organized movement."Never again," they say with finality.
I shall appeal to the thousands of white youth in schools and colleges who are today vigorously shedding the prejudices of their parents and professors. I shall urge then to demonstrate their solidarity with Negro youth by ignoring the entire registration and induction machinery. And finally I shall appeal to Negro parents to lend their moral support to their sons—to stand behind them as they march with heads high to federal prisons as a telling demonstration to the world that Negroes have reached the limit of human endurance—that is, in the words of the spiritual, we'll be buried in our graves before we will be slaves.
May I, in conclusion, Mr. Chairman, point out that political maneuvers have made this drastic program our last resort. Your party, the party of Lincoln, solemnly pledged in its 1994 platform a full-fledged Congressional investigation of injustices to Negro soldiers. Instead of that long overdue probe, the Senate Armed Services Committee on this very day is finally hearing testimony from two or three Negro veterans for a period of 20 minutes each. The House Armed Services Committee and Chairman Andrews went one step further and arrogantly refused to hear any at all! Since we cannot obtain an adequate Congressional forum for our grievances, we have no other recourse but to tell our story to the peoples of the world by organized direct action. I don't believe that even a wartime censorship wall could be high enough to conceal news of a civil disobedience program. If we cannot win your support for your own Party commitments, if we cannot ring a bell in you by appealing to human decency, we shall command your respect and the respect of the world by our united refusal to cooperate with tyrannical injustice.
Since the military, with their Southern biases, intend to take over America and institute total encampment of the populace along jimcrow lines, Negroes will resist with the power of non-violence, with the weapons of moral principles, with the good-will weapons of the spirit, yes with the weapons that brought freedom to India. I feel morally obligated to disturb and keep disturbed the conscience of jimcrow America. In resisting the insult of jimcrowism to the soul of black America, we are helping to save the soul of America. And let me add that I am opposed to Russian totalitarian communism and all its works. I consider it a menace to freedom. I stand by democracy as expressing the Judean-Christian ethic. But democracy and Christianity must be boldly and courageously applied for all men regardless of race, color, creed or country.
We shall wage a relentless warfare against jimcrow without hate or revenge for the moral and spiritual progress and safety of our country, world peace and freedom.
Finally let me say that Negroes are just sick and tired of being pushed around and we just don't propose to take it, and we do not care what happens.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Dwight Johnson: "From Dakto to Detroit: Death of a Troubled Hero" by Jon Nordheimer
Sergeant Dwight Johnson won the Congressional Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery in the Vietnam War. As with many African American war heroes before him, Johnson's extraordinary courage under fire left a lasting impression on those who witnessed it. But when he returned home to Detroit, he found that he was a "feather in the cap of a lot of people," including the military brass, who hoped to use Johnson to recruit other black soldiers. Burdened by debts and by excruciating flashbacks of combat in Vietnam and troubled by what he regarded as the army's exploitation of him, Johnson found his life rapidly deteriorating.
A Vietnam War Hero Returns Home
A few tenants living in the E.J. Jefferies Homes, a dreary public housing project in Corktown, an old Detroit neighborhood, can still remember Dwight Johnson as a little boy who lived in one of the rust-brown buildings with his mother and baby brother. They think it strange, after all that has happened to Dwight, to remember him as a gentle boy who hated to fight.
Dwight Johnson died one week from his 24th birthday, shot and killed as he tried to rob a grocery store a mile from his home. The store manager later told the police that a tall Negro had walked in shortly before midnight, drawn a revolver out of his topcoat and demanded money from the cash register.
The manager pulled his own pistol from under the counter and the two men struggled. Seven shots were fired.
Four and one-half hours later, on an operating table at Detroit General Hospital, Dwight (Skip) Johnson died from five gunshot wounds.
Ordinarily, the case would have been closed right there, a routine crime in a city where there were 13,583 armed robberies last year.
But when the detectives went through the dead man's wallet for identification, they found a small white card with its edges rubbed thin from wear."Congressional Medal of Honor Society—United States of America," it said."This certifies that Dwight H. Johnson is a member of this society."
The news of the death of Sgt. Dwight Johnson shocked the black community of Detroit. Born out of wedlock when his mother was a teenager and raised on public welfare, he had been the good boy on his block in the dreary housing project, an altar boy and Explorer Scout, one of the few among the thousands of poor black youngsters in Detroit who had struggled against the grinding life of the ghetto and broken free, coming home from Vietnam tall and strong and a hero.
The story of Dwight Johnson and his drift from hero in Dakto, Vietnam, to villain in Detroit is a difficult one to trace. The moments of revelation are rare. There were, ofcourse, those two brief episodes that fixed public attention on him: 30 minutes of "uncommon valor" one cold morning in combat that earned him the nation's highest military decoration, and the 30-second confrontation in the Detroit grocery that ended his life.
Oddly, they are moments of extreme violence, and everyone who knew Dwight Johnson—or thought he did—knew he was not a violent man.
Now that the funeral is over and the out-of-town relatives have gone home and the family conferences that sought clues to explain Dwight's odd behavior have ended in bitter confusion, his mother can sit back and talk wistfully about the days when Skip was a skinny kid who was chased home after school by the Corktown bullies.
"Mama," he would ask, "what do I do if they catch me?" His mother would place an arm around his thin shoulders and draw him close. "Skip," she would say, "don't you fight, honey, and don't let them catch you. "The boy would look downcast and worried."Yes, Mama," he'd say.
"Dwight was a fabulous, all-around guy, bright and with a great sense of humor," reflected Barry Davis, an auburn-haired Californian who flew with his wife to Detroit when he heard on a news report that Dwight had been killed. Three others who had served with him in Vietnam, all of them white, also came, not understanding what aberration had led to his death.
"I can remember our first day at Fort Knox and Dwight was the only colored guy in our platoon," Barry Davis recalled."So we're in formation and this wise guy from New Jersey says to Dwight,'Hey, what's the initials N.A.A.C.P. stand for?'
"And Dwight says,'The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.'
"And this wise guy from New Jersey says,'Naw, that ain't it. It stands for Niggers Acting As Colored People.'
"And I said to myself, 'Wow, those are fighting words,' but Dwight just laughed. From then on he was just one of the guys. As it turned out, Dwight liked this wise guy from New Jersey in the end as much as he liked anybody."
Most of the men who served with Sergeant Dwight Johnson remembered him that way—easy-going, hard to rattle, impossible to anger.
But Stan Enders remembers him another way. Stan was the gunner in Skip's tank that morning in Vietnam three years ago, during the fighting at Dakto.
"No one who was there could ever forget the sight of this guy taking on a whole battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers," Stan said as he stood in the sunshine outside Faith Memorial Church in Corktown three weeks ago, waiting for Skip's funeral service to begin.
Their platoon of four M-48 tanks was racing down a road toward Dakto, in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when it was ambushed. Communist rockets knocked out two of the tanks immediately, and waves of foot soldiers sprang out of the nearby woods to attack the two tanks still in commission.
Skip hoisted himself out of the turret hatch and manned the mounted .50-caliber machine gun. He had been assigned to this tank only the night before. His old tank, and the crew he had spent 11 months and 22 days with in Vietnam and had never seen action before, was 60 feet away, burning.
"He was really close to those guys in that tank," Stan said. "He just couldn't sit still and watch it burn with them inside."
Skip ran through heavy crossfire to the tank and opened its hatch. He pulled out the first man he came across in the turret, burned but still alive, and got him to the ground just as the tank's artillery shells exploded, killing everyone left inside.
"When the tank blew up and Dwight saw the bodies all burned and black, well, he just sort of cracked up," said Stan.
For 30 minutes, armed first with a .45-caliber pistol and then with a submachine gun, Skip hunted the Vietnamese on the ground, killing from five to 20 enemy soldiers, nobody knows for sure. When he ran out of ammunition, he killed one with the stock of the machine gun.
At one point he came face to face with a Communist soldier who squeezed the trigger on his weapon aimed point-blank at him. The gun misfired and Skip killed him. But the soldier would come back to haunt him late at night in Detroit, in those dreams in which that anonymous soldier stood in front of him, and barrel of his AK-47 as big as a railroad tunnel, his finger on the trigger, slowly pressing it.
"When it was all over," Stan said, walking up the church steps as the funeral service got under way,"it took three men and three shots of morphine to hold Dwight down. He was raving. He tried to kill the prisoners we had rounded up. They took him away to a hospital in Pleiku in a straightjacket."
Stan saw Skip the next day. He had been released from the hospital, and came by to pick up his personal gear. His Vietnam tour was over and he was going home.
No one there would know anything about Dakto until 10 months later, at the White House Medal of Honor ceremony.
Sergeant Johnson returned home in early 1968, outwardly only little changed from the quiet boy named Skip who had grown up in Detroit and been drafted. Even when he and the other black veterans came home and could not find a job, he seemed to take it in stride.
He had been discharged with $600 in his pocket, and it was enough to buy cigarettes and go out at night with his cousin, Tommy Tillman, and with Eddie Wright, a friend from the Jefferies Homes, and make the rounds to the Shadowbox or the Little Egypt, to drink a little beer and have a few dates.
And at home no one knew about the bad dreams he was having. They would have to learn about that later from an Army psychiatrist.
If anyone asked him about Vietnam he would just shake his head, or laugh and say,"Aw, man, nothing happened," and he would change the subject and talk about the girls in Kuala Lumpur where he went for R & R, or the three-day pass he spent in Louisville, Ky., drinking too much whisky for the first time in his life and ending up in jail.
He returned home just as the Communist Tet offensive erupted in Vietnam, and everyone talked about how lucky he had been to get out before things got hot. They teased him then about his lackluster military career.
"When he came home from Vietnam he was different, sure. I noticed it, all jumpy and nervous and he had to be doing something all the time, it seems," said Eddie Wright."But mostly he was the same fun-time guy."
Carmen Berry, a close friend of Katrina May, the girl Skip started dating after his discharge, thought she detected nuances of change she attributed to the same mental letdown she had seen in other Vietnam veterans.
"They get quiet," she said. "It's like they don't have too much to say about what it was like over there. Maybe it's because they've killed people and they don't really know why they killed them.
"The only thing that bugged me about Skip then," reflected his cousin Tommy,"and the one thing I thought was kind of strange and unlike him, was the pictures he brought back. He had a stack of pictures of dead people, you know, dead Vietnamese. Color slides."
In the fall he started looking for a job, along with Tommy Tillman.
"We'd go down to the state employment agency every day and take a look at what was listed," his cousin recalled."Skip was funny; he wouldn't try for any of the hard jobs. If we wrote down the name of a company that had a job that he didn't feel qualified for, he wouldn't even go into the place to ask about it. He'd just sit in the car while I went in.
"Or if he did go in some place, he'd just sit and mumble a few words when they'd ask him questions. It was like he felt inferior. He'd give a terrible impression. But once we got back in the car, it was the same old Skip, laughing and joking."
One day in October two military policemen came to his house. His mother saw the uniforms and before opening the door whispered urgently,"What did you do?"
"I didn't do nothing, honest, Ma," he answered.
The M.P.s asked Skip a few questions. They wanted to know what he was doing and if he had been arrested since his discharge. Fifteen minutes after they left, the telephone rang. It was a colonel, calling from the Department of Defense in Washington. Sergeant Johnson was being awarded the Medal of Honor, he said. Could he and his family be in Washington on Nov. 19 so President Johnson could personally present the award?
One week later, on Nov. 19, 1968, they were all there in the White House, Skip tall and handsome in his dress-blue uniform, his mother, Katrina and Tommy Tillman. The President gave a little speech. The national election was over, the Democrats had lost, but there were signs of movement at the Paris peace talks.
"Our hearts and our hopes are turned to peace as we assemble here in the East Room this morning," the President said. "All our efforts are being bent in its pursuit. But in this company we hear again, in our minds, the sound of distant battles."
Five men received the Medal of Honor that morning. And when Sergeant Johnson stepped stiffly forward and the President looped the pale blue ribbon and sun-burst medal around his neck, a citation was read that described his valor.
Later, in the receiving line, when his mother reached Skip she saw tears streaming down his face.
"Honey," she whispered, "what are you crying about? You've made it back."
After he officially became a hero, it seemed that everyone in Detroit wanted to hire Dwight Johnson, the only living Medal of Honor winner in Michigan. Companies that had not been interested in a diffident ex-G.I. named Johnson suddenly found openings for Medal of Honor Winner Johnson.
Among those who wanted him was the United States Army.
"The brass wanted him in the Detroit recruiting office because—let's face it—here was a black Medal of Honor winner, and blacks are our biggest manpower pool in Detroit," said an Army employe who had worked with Skip after he rejoined the service a month after winning the medal. "Personally, I think a lot of promises were made to the guy that couldn't be kept. You got to remember that getting this guy back into the Army was a feather in the cap of a lot of people."
Events began moving quickly then for Skip. He married Katrina in January (the Pontchartrain Hotel gave the couple its bridal suite for their wedding night), and the newlyweds went to Washington in January as guests at the Nixon inaugural. Sergeant Johnson began a long series of personal appearances across Michigan in a public relations campaign mapped by the Army.
In February, 1,500 persons paid $10 a plate to attend a testimonial dinner for the hero in Detroit's Cobo Hall, co-sponsored by the Ford Motor Company and the Chamber of Commerce. A special guest was Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Army Chief of Staff and former commander of United States forces in Vietnam.
"Dwight was a hot property back in those days," recalled Charles Bielak, a civilian information officer for the Army's recruiting operations in Detroit."I was getting calls for him all over the state. Of course, all this clamor didn't last. It reached a saturation point somewhere along the way and tapered off."
But while it lasted, Skip's life was frenetic. Lions Clubs … Rotary … American Legion. Detroit had a new hero. Tiger Stadium and meet the players. Sit at the dais with the white politicians. Be hailed by the black businessmen who would not have bothered to shake his hand before. Learn which fork to use for the salad. Say something intelligent to the reporters. Pick up the check for dinner for friends. Live like a man who had it made.
But Leroy May, the hero's father-in-law, could still see the child behind the man.
"Dwight and Katrina were a perfect match—they both had a lot of growing up to do," he said."They didn't know how to handle all the attention they got in those early days. They'd go out to supper so much Katrina complained she couldn't eat any more steak. I had to take them out and buy them hot dogs and soda pop. They were just like a couple of kids."
Bills started piling up. "They were in over their heads as soon as they were married," Mr. May said.
Everyone extended credit to the Medal of Honor winner. Even when he bought the wedding ring, the jeweler would not take a down payment. Take money from a hero? Not then. Later, the Johnsons discovered credit cards.
At first they lived in an $85-a-month apartment. But Katrina wanted a house. Skip signed a mortgage on a $16,000 house on the west side of Detroit. Monthly payments were $160.
In the spring of 1970, he wrote a bad check for $41.77 at a local market. The check was made good by a black leader in Detroit who was aghast that the Medal of Honor winner had gotten himself into a financial hole.
"I went to see him and told him he couldn't go on like this," said the man, a lawyer who asked to remain anonymous."I said he was young and black and had the Medal of Honor. He could do anything he wanted. I tried to get him to think about college and law school. The black businessmen would pick up the tab. He wouldn't have any part of it."
Looking back on this meeting, the lawyer said he suspected Skip was burdened by a "ghetto mentality" that limited his horizons. His world had been a public housing project and schools a few blocks away. Now, suddenly, events had thrust him outside the security of his boyhood neighborhood into a world dominated by whites.
He was paralyzed, the lawyer speculated, by an inability to formulate a plan of action in this alien culture that he had been transported to by something that happened on the other side of the globe.
"What does he do when he's introduced to Bunkie Knudsen, the president of Ford?" asked the lawyer."Does he come across strong and dynamic because he knows there is a $75,000-a-year job waiting for him if he makes a good impression? And what happens to him when he just stands there and fumbles and doesn't know if he should shake hands or just nod his head? He was forced to play a role he was never trained for and never anticipated."
Tommy Tillman remembers how Skip would take several friends downtown to the Pontchartrain Hotel for an expensive meal and sit fumbling with the silverware, watching the others to see what fork to use first."I'd say to him,'Shoot, man, what do you care? Go ahead and use anything you want.'
"I wondered how he must feel when he's the guest of honor at one of those fancy meetings he was all the time going to."
It was about this time that the stomach pains started.
"It was all that rich food he was eating," said his father-in-law. His mother recalled that "Skip always did have a nervous stomach."
He began staying away from his job as a recruiter, missed appointments and speaking engagements."It got so I had to pick him up myself and deliver him to a public appearance," said Mr. Bielak. "I had to handcuff myself to the guy to get him someplace. It was embarrassing. I couldn't understand his attitude."
Last summer it was decided that Sergeant Johnson should report to Selfridge Air Force Base, not far from Detroit, for diagnosis of stomach complaints.
From Selfridge he was sent in September to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania. An Army psychiatrist later mulled over his notes on the patient and talked about them:
Maalox and bland diet prescribed. G.I. series conducted. Results negative. Subject given 30-day convalescent leave to 16 October 1970. Absent without leave until 21 January 1971 when subject returned to Army hospital on own volition. Subsequent hearing recommended dismissal of A.W.O.L. charge and back pay reinstated. Subject agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation. In cognizance of subject's outstanding record in Vietnam, the division's chief psychiatrist placed in charge of the case. Preliminary analysis: Depression caused by post-Vietnam adjustment problem.
In February, Eddie Wright bumped into Skip on a Detroit street.
"Hey, man, where've you been?"
"I just got out of Valley Forge on a pass."
"How things going there?"
"They got me in the psycho ward."
"Huh, you got to be kidding."
"No, man, they think I'm crazy."
During the convalescent leave, Sergeant Johnson borrowed $4,992 from a Detroit credit union. In his wallet he had a cashier's check for $1,500, the back pay the Army had awarded him. Most of his time he spent at home on the pass but when he went out he would drive to the Jefferies Homes and play basketball with the teenagers after school.
"He was a big man down there with the kids," recalled his cousin."We had all lived in the project and had been on welfare, just like those kids there today, and we were like heroes because we had broken out of there. We had made it to the outside world, and to them we were big successes. We had made it.
"Skip was something special. He had that medal, and they were proud of him. He'd be down there five minutes and the kids would come around and say,'Hey man, ain't you Dwight Johnson?'"
His old high school crowd was concerned about some of his new friends, though."They were strung out on drugs, and they just seemed to be hanging around Skip for his money," said his mother. "I asked him one night if he was taking anything, and he rolled up his sleeves and showed me there were no tracks [needle marks].'Ma,' he said,'I'm not taking a thing.'"
On his return to the hospital, he began analysis with the chief attending psychiatrist.
Subject is bright. His Army G.T. rating is equivalent of 120 I.Q. In first interviews he does not volunteer information. He related he grew up in a Detroit ghetto and never knew his natural father. He sort of laughed when he said he was a "good boy" and did what was expected of him. The only time he can remember losing his temper as a youth was when neighborhood bullies picked on his younger brother. He was so incensed grownups had to drag him off the other boys. In general, there is evidence the subject learned to live up to the expectations of others while there was a build-up of anger he continually suppressed.
The Army hospital is actually in Phoenixville, Pa., several miles from Valley Forge. It is the principal treatment center for psychiatric and orthopedic patients in the Northeast, with 1,200 beds now occupied.
Because of the large number of amputees and wheel-chair patients, the hospital has only two floors and is spread over several acres. Long oak-floored corridors run in all directions, connected by covered walkways and arcades. Someone once measured the hospital and found there were seven miles of corridors in a maze-like jumble. To prevent patients from losing their way, wards are painted different colors.
Dressed in hospital blue denims, the warrior-hero walked the labyrinth late at night, wrestling with the problems that tormented his mind and drained his spirit.
"The first day Dwight arrived here, the hospital's sergeant major brought him to us," said Spec. 6 Herman Avery, a tall Negro with a flat face and close-set eyes, who was master of the ward Dwight was first assigned to at the hospital."It was the first time the sergeant major ever did that. We got the message. This guy was something special.
"Well, practically the first night he's here they dress him up and take him over to the Freedoms Foundations in Valley Forge to shake hands. When he got back he told me that if they ever did that again he would go A.W.O.L."
There was further psychiatric evaluation.
Subject expressed doubts over his decision to reenter the Army as a recruiter. He felt the Army didn't honor its commitment to him. The public affairs were satisfactory to him at first, but he started to feel inadequate. People he would meet would pump his hand and slap his back and say,"Johnson, if you ever think about getting out of the Army, come look me up. "On several occasions he contacted these individuals and they didn't remember him. It always took several minutes to remind them who he was.
Back in Detroit on leave on one occasion, his mother asked him to drive her to a doctor's appointment. In the office, an off-duty black Detroit policeman, Ronald Turner, recognized the Medal of Honor winner. When he asked for an account of his experience in Vietnam, Skip replied: "Don't ask me anything about the medal. I don't even know how I won it."
Later, the policeman reported Skip complained that he had been exploited by the Army. He told him that ever since he won the medal he had been set on a hero's path as an inspiration to black kids.
Others recalled how upset he had become when his recruiting talks at some black high schools in Detroit had been picketed by militants who called him an "electronic nigger," a robot the Army was using to recruit blacks for a war in Asia.
With his psychiatrist, he began to discuss his deeper anxieties.
Since coming home from Vietnam the subject has had bad dreams. He didn't confide in his mother or wife, but entertained a lot of moral judgment as to what had happened at Dakto. Why had he been ordered to switch tanks the night before? Why was he spared and not the others? He experienced guilt about his survival. He wondered if he was sane. It made him sad and depressed.
Skip signed out of the hospital on March 28 on a three-day pass to Philadelphia. The next day the newspapers and television were filled with reports of the conviction of First Lieut. William L. Calley Jr. on charges of murdering Vietnamese civilians. Skip turned up in Detroit a few days later and never returned to the Army hospital.
He settled in at home once again and dodged the telephone calls from the Army.
"How can you take punitive action against a Medal of Honor holder?" asked a major at the hospital who tried to convince him to return.
The Army did contact the Ford Motor Company, however, which had been letting Skip use a Thunderbird for the past two years. Ford picked up the car on the theory that without it he might be inconvenienced enough to return to the hospital. Instead, he cashed the cashier's check for $1,500, his Army back pay, and bought a 1967 Mercury for $850. He changed his unlisted phone number to avoid the Army callers and a growing number of bill collectors.
By April, his house mortgage had not been paid for the previous nine months, and foreclosing proceedings had been started. He owed payments on his credit union loan.
The car had to go into a garage for brake repairs on Wednesday, April 28, and Skip was told it would cost $78.50 to get it out. The same day, Katrina entered a hospital for removal of an infected cyst, and he told the admitting office clerk he would pay the $25 deposit the next day.
Lonely and depressed at home, Skip telephoned his cousin."Let's go out and grab some beers," he said. But his cousin was busy.
He made another phone call that night and spoke to a friend in the Army."I have a story I'm writing and I want you to peddle it for me," he said."It starts out like this:
"Sgt. Dwight Johnson is dead and his home has been wiped out.…"
On April 30, Skip visited Katrina at the hospital. She said they were asking about the hospital deposit. He left at 5:30, promising to return later that evening with her hair curlers and bathrobe.
"He was just the same old Dwight, just kidding and teasing," his wife recalled."When he was going, he said, 'Ain't you going to give me a little kiss good-by?' He said it like a little boy with his thumb in his mouth. So I kissed him and he went."
When Eddie Wright got home from work that night about 9 o'clock, he got a call from Skip. He said he needed a ride to pick up some money someone owed him and wanted to know if Eddie could get his stepfather to drive him. He said he would pay $15 for the ride.
Around 11 o'clock, Eddie, his mother and his stepfather picked up Skip at his home. At his direction they drove west for about a mile to the corner of Orangelawn and Prest.
"Stop here," Skip told him, getting out of the car. "This guy lives down the street and I don't want him to see me coming."
The family waited in the car for 30 minutes. They became nervous, parked in a white neighborhood, and as Eddie explained later to the police, it may have looked odd for a car filled with blacks to be parked on a dark street. "So we pulled the car out under a streetlight so everybody could see us," he said.
At about 11:45 a police car pulled up sharply and two officers with drawn pistols got out. "What are you doing here?" they asked.
"We're waiting for a friend."
"What's his name?"
"Dwight Johnson's on the floor of a grocery store around the corner," the officers said."He's been shot.
"I first hit him with two bullets," the manager, Charles Landeghem, said later."But he just stood there, with the gun in his hand, and said, 'I'm going to kill you.…'
"I kept pulling the trigger until my gun was empty."
Skip's psychiatrist recalled one of the interviews with him.
The subject remembered coming face to face with a Vietnamese with a gun. He can remember the soldier squeezing the trigger. The gun jammed. The subject has since engaged in some magical thinking about this episode. He also suffers guilt over surviving it, and later winning a high honor for the one time in his life when he lost complete control of himself. He asked: "What would happen if I lost control of myself in Detroit and behaved like I did in Vietnam?" The prospect of such an event apparently was deeply disturbing to him.
The burial at Arlington National Cemetery took place on a muggy and overcast day. The grave, on a grassy slope about 200 yards east of the Kennedy Memorial, overlooks the Potomac and the Pentagon, gray and silent, to the south.
The Army honor guard, in dress blues, carried out its assignment with precision, the sixth burial of the day for the eight-man unit, while tourists took photographs at a discreet distance from the grieving family.
For a few days after the burial, the family weighed the possibility that Skip had been taking narcotics in the last few months of his life and the demands of drugs had sent him into the grocery store with a gun. But the autopsy turned up no trace of narcotics.
Eddie Wright and his family were released by homicide detectives after questioning, even after Eddie could not produce any plausible reason why his best friend had carried out a bizarre crime and implicated him at the same time.
The dead man's mother was the only one who uttered the words that no one else dared to speak.
"Sometimes I wonder if Skip tired of this life and needed someone else to pull the trigger," she said late one night in the living room of her home, her eyes fixed on a large color photograph of her son, handsome in his uniform, with the pale blue ribbon of his country's highest military honor around his neck.
It is both ironic and tragic that a growing number of blacks are refusing service in the armed forces. It is ironic because, after seeking the privilege of serving for two hundred years, many blacks have decided it is not such a privilege after all. Instead, military duty at the front has taken on the aura of still another rejection. That is to say, at this time, when the war itself is in such a disfavor, it appears to some that by sending a disproportionate number of blacks into combat zones the army prefers to spare white lives at the expense of black. The tragedy is that many black youths do not feel that America is worth fighting for to begin with.
Some blacks feel strongly enough about discrimination at home to refuse induction altogether, whatever the consequences. A few find the issue a convenient excuse to dodge the draft, but others are truly committed to the pursuit of civil liberty. An example of this attitude is a man by the name of John Otis Sumrall. Sumrall was one of the first blacks to challenge the legality of segregated draft boards. He asked the court to forbid induction or classification of Negroes until the number of Negroes on draft boards was proportional to the local population. His suit also maintained that the Mississippi State Director of Selective Service had personally intervened to have three criminal charges against him dismissed, and that he was called out of turn for induction so as to terminate his civil rights activities. In August, 1967, he was sentenced to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine for refusing induction. Sumrall asked the question that an increasing number of young blacks are asking today: "If I am not looked upon as an equal citizen in everyday life, why am I looked upon as an equal citizen when it comes time for me to report for induction?" This is a fair question and one which must be answered satisfactorily if further black alienation is to be prevented.
On the other side of the coin, the armed forces, reflecting American society in general, have traditionally been a source of upward mobility, at least for the white population. It is possible, therefore, that the recent top promotions of black men in both the army and navy indicates a belated recognition of the importance of mobility and equality of opportunity within the services—and possibly, just possibly, a reflection of greater opportunity without.
SOURCE: New York Times, May 25, 1971. Reproduced by permission.
Joe Louis (1914-1981) and Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) in Wartime
Born to Alabama sharecroppers in 1914, Joe Louis became one of the great folk heroes of modern black America, winning the world heavyweight championship from James Braddock in 1937 and maintaining the title for twelve years. Louis joined the U.S. Army during World War II at the rank of sergeant, for which he was also adored as a symbol of American might in the fight against the Axis powers. In addition, Louis's defeat of German Max Schmeling in 1938 helped the American propaganda cause.
In contrast, heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali reviled the war in Vietnam, making public statements against both the war and what Ali viewed as the racist policies of a nation which "had not fought for him. "Because of his refusal to enter the U.S. Army in 1967, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and spent time in jail. Although Ali's decision not to contribute to the war effort was looked upon with disfavor by many at the time, growing antiwar sentiment helped restore Ali's reputation as an American hero over time.