When the civil rights movement became a casualty of war
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 9, 2014
Sammy Younge Jr. was legally entitled to use the restroom. It was January 1966, nearly two years after President Lyndon Johnson had signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination and racial segregation at facilities that served the public.
But when the African-American former Navy sailor attempted to use an Alabama gas station “whites only” restroom, the station attendant shot him dead.
Younge, 21, had been on a voter registration drive with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee when he was killed. Days later, as a result, the committee became the first civil rights organization to oppose the war in Vietnam.
The group, led by John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, said that Younge’s murder illustrated how wrong it was for black men to fight an “imperialist” war in Vietnam — supposedly for freedom’s sake — when they themselves were denied basic rights and freedoms in the United States.
It was not a popular message.
The group was derided as unpatriotic and communist-infested by the white establishment and by other civil rights groups. Likewise, the African-American press, which saw military service as a stepping stone to equality and lauded the bravery and accomplishments of black soldiers in Vietnam, condemned the group.
The next year, Martin Luther King Jr.’s anguished decision to break with Johnson and oppose the war met with the same censure.
“The promises of the great society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam,” King said in his famous speech, “making the poor, white and Negro bear the heaviest burden both at the front and at home.”
The civil rights movement itself was a casualty of war, historians have subsequently agreed. By creating dissension within the civil rights coalition, diverting attention and siphoning money that would have been spent on Johnson’s domestic programs — the War on Poverty and the Great Society — it killed the movement and ushered in a conservative era historically hostile to civil rights, some say.
“The Vietnam War divided the civil rights movement and African-Americans more than any other event in American history, exacerbating pre-existing rifts in the civil rights coalition, and it diverted attention away from the struggle for racial justice and toward opposition to the war,” argues Daniel Lucks, author of “Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War,” published in March. “All these factors had profound and tragic consequences for the civil rights movement and for black America.”
A ticket out
Civil rights groups — SNCC, CORE, NAACP, the Urban League among them — had been “loosely united and working towards a set of goals” in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the movement was the preeminent issue in the U.S., said historian and author James Westheider. “That fell apart, with few exceptions,” he said.
The war was especially destructive to the black community, he said. “The draft had a weird effect of taking the best and the brightest — the ones that could have stayed and made a difference.”
Vietnam was the nation’s first racially integrated war since the American Revolution, following President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order desegregating the services which, while obstructed for years by the Army and Marine Corps, had been largely accomplished by the early 1950s as the Korean War ended.
That didn’t mean that black troops were accepted or treated as equal to whites, but it was a start; in the American South, by contrast, Jim Crow prevailed.
“For all of its faults, the military was still the most integrated and probably the most fair institution in the country,” said Westheider, professor of American history and chairman of the Social Science and Humanities Department at Clermont College, part of the University of Cincinnati system.
In fact, black soldiers were still usually relegated to career fields like cook or truck driver, said former Sgt. 1st Class Allen Thomas.
When he enlisted in the Army in 1957 on his 18th birthday, looking to get out of Cincinnati, Ohio, he said he was one of the first blacks allowed to train in electronics and communication.
He was reduced in rank for fighting — over a racial slur, he said — and, disillusioned, got out after three years. He thought he would use his electronic skills in civilian life, but that’s not what happened.
"They wouldn’t accept my skills here. The only job I could get was janitor or security guard."
He re-enlisted within two weeks and made the Army a career, serving for 18 more years.
Alfonza Wright was one of only seven black men on a ship of 167 after he enlisted in the Navy in 1960. He encountered little racism, he said during a recent interview. “One time this Italian guy said to me, ‘The N word, why don’t you get up off your ass?’
“I clocked him,” Wright said, and that was that.
The larger society was more of a threat. “When we pulled into Key West, Fla., I knew to keep my ass on the ship,” he said.
Norfolk, Va., was not friendly to black people — or sailors. There was a sign outside the port reading: “No sailors, no blacks, no dogs allowed on the grass,’’ Wright said.
As a result, many African-Americans, few of whom could afford going to college, viewed the military as their Harvard, a ticket out of the ghetto or poor rural town. Many enlisted to try to secure their futures or in hopes of getting a better assignment than they would as a draftee.
Like in other wars, African-Americans believed that proving themselves equal to whites on the battlefield would prove them equal as men to white society.
Many others were drafted: Most blacks didn’t have the connections to get guard or reserve assignments; student deferments were only for those in college; and draft boards, which had largely undisputed discretionary powers, were nearly 100 percent white.
All that contributed to a disproportionate number of black troops being sent to and dying in combat, particularly at the beginning of the war’s escalation. In 1965, according to Westheider, one of every four U.S. soldiers killed or wounded was black. By July 1966, he said, African-Americans accounted for 22 percent of all American casualties, and the next year, more than 14 percent.
“I feel good about it,” Lt. Col. George Shoffer, one of the Army’s highest-ranking black officers said in 1968 about the casualty rate, according to Westheider’s “The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms.” “Not that I like bloodshed,” Shoffer continued. “But the performance of the Negro in Vietnam tends to offset the fact that the Negro wasn’t considered worthy of being a front-line soldier in other wars.”
The Pentagon also used that argument, Westheider said, initially denying that there was discrimination in combat assignments. But in March 1966, the Defense Department acknowledged that African-Americans accounted for 31 percent of combat infantry troops the year before and started to take steps to remedy that, according to Westheider.
‘Silence is betrayal’
By the time Marine 1st Lt. Archie Biggers returned from Vietnam in 1969, it was clear how fully African-Americans had turned against the war. As a black officer, he told journalist Wallace Terry for Terry’s highly regarded 1984 book, “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans,” that he was shunned as “Uncle Sam’s flunky.”
On a recruiting trip to Howard University, students wanted nothing to do with him or the military, he said. “They would say the Marine Corps sucks. The Army sucks. They would say their brother or their uncle got killed, so why was I still in,” Biggers said. “They would see the Purple Heart and ask me what I was trying to prove.”
The high African-American casualty rate was one of the factors that persuaded King to condemn the war in his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech after years of agonizing about it. But it wasn’t the only factor.
King, like other civil rights leaders, was grateful to Johnson, who’d secured passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, pushed through the Voting Rights Act a year later, and, until becoming embroiled in the war, had made civil rights and improving the lives of black people a domestic policy priority.
Black leaders were loath to lose their presidential ally, and, in some cases, their friend, and supported the war or kept quiet. “If we are not with Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, then he is not going to be with us on civil rights,” Whitney Young, head of the National Urban League, was quoted as saying in Lucks’ book.
“LBJ was a pretty formidable character,” Lucks said. “If you crossed LBJ, he ran you out.”
Young supported the war until Johnson was out of office in 1969. Then he opposed it.
Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, provided strong support. He barred criticism of U.S. policy in Vietnam and forbid participation in anti-war demonstrations. Meanwhile, numerous articles, editorials and photo essays were published in The Crisis magazine highlighting heroic black troops — until 1969.
But King, who’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, finally felt he had to speak out. “A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam,” he said.
On April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, he described the war’s ill effects on America’s poor and the Vietnamese. The U.S., he said, was “the biggest purveyor of violence in the world,” and he insisted it was morally imperative to halt the war.
A Washington Post editorial said King’s speech ‘‘diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.’’
“The media has this view that King is ‘not competent’ on issues beyond civil rights,” Lucks said. “’What does he know about foreign policy?”’
The NAACP and Ralph Bunche, a prominent African-American diplomat who in 1950 became the first person of color to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, also criticized King.
Still, three weeks after King’s speech, Muhammed Ali refused induction into the Army. “My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said.
By then, the movement was also riven by generational issues. Younger, more militant, sometimes separatist leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, who took over SNCC and coined the term “Black Power,” spoke about the war in colonialist terms.
“The war is the white man sending the black man to make war on the yellow man to defend the land he stole from the red man,” he said in 1968.
“Since World War II, black leaders had praised the military as a shining example of integration and equal opportunity, but the black nationalists believed that the armed forces were just as racist as the rest of white America,” Westheider writes in “The African American Experience in Vietnam.”
“To them, Vietnam was not a place to start a career; it was a place to get killed while fighting for the white power structure.”
Black nationalist leaders like the Black Panthers, who called for “armed self-defense,” also spoke to problems in bleak urban ghettoes that the end of Jim Crow did not address. Urban riots erupted, first in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, then in other cities.
“Their philosophy was burn, baby, burn,” said Wright, who left the Navy in 1966 and by 1969 was at the Community College of Baltimore.
“The demonstrations were always going on in D.C. but I wasn’t a part of it,” he said. “I wanted to get a degree. I wanted VA benefits. I didn’t want to jeopardize that.’’
Black troops, influenced by the younger leaders' ideals of black pride and solidarity, became increasingly unwilling to accommodate themselves to what was still rampant racism - both in society and the military, Westheider said. It was not uncommon at the time for southern white soldiers to display Confederate flags.
“In Mississippi, we had to fight in the street. We had to fight on base. We had two wars going, Vietnam and America. It wasn’t just the Army,” said Thomas, who fought in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1965-68. “I stayed angry all the time.”
Thomas said there were two types of black soldiers in Vietnam by the late-1960s: lifers like him who’d been around the world with the military, and teenagers — many of them drafted, most of them steeped in the new black pride and some of them, he said, “angry, arrogant young men.”
“We didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand us,” “Thomas said. “They had a few problems with our not being black enough for them. We were telling them to slow down, and they were telling us to get out of the way.”
Institutional racism affected blacks in every facet of their military lives, according to Westheider, but most especially in non-judicial punishment handed out by commanders.
One glaring discrepancy: Only 15 percent of whites charged with being AWOL went to the stockade, he said, but 40 percent of blacks did.
A black soldier’s experience was dictated largely by his commander, Thomas said. “If you had an entrenched racist — they could do anything to you. They could put you in jail or put you out of the Army. Depending on what unit you were in was how you were treated.”
“By 1968, all of the elements needed to trigger racial violence in the armed forces were present,” Westheider said. The racial violence was widespread, he said, on U.S. and overseas bases, at stockades and at least two aircraft carriers.
“Only the combat units out in the field were spared,” Westheider said.
In combat, racial animosities gave way as the men relied on each other to survive.
“We didn’t have racial incidents like what was happening in the rear area, ‘cause we had to depend on each other,” Spc. 5 Harold “Lightbulb” Bryant, who spent 1966 with the First Cavalry Division in An Khe, told Terry for his oral-history book. “We were always in the bush,”
Being in combat together also opened the eyes of black soldiers.
“I got to find out that white people weren’t as tough, weren’t the number one race and all them other perceptions that they had tried to ingrain into my head,” Bryant said. “I found out they got scared like I did.”
The military repeatedly denied there was racism in the ranks, institutional or otherwise. In a 1969 inquiry by the House Committee on Armed Forces into a disturbance at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in which a white corporal was killed and others were injured, for instance, found that it “did not result from any specific provocation, but was generated by a few militant blacks who fanned the flames of racism, misconception, suspicions, and frustrations.”
Four years later, a Congressional hearing into a 1972 “riot” on the USS Kitty Hawk concluded that it “consisted of unprovoked assaults by a very few men ...” There was no racism against blacks, the committee decided, just “many perceptions of discrimination by young blacks, who, because of their sensitivity to real or fancied oppression, often enlist with a chip on their shoulder.”
Military officials realized that riots and discord would affect readiness. In 1971, the DOD convened a task force to study “causes and possible cures” of racial discord. Reforms followed, including the start of the Defense Race Relations Institute, the forerunner of today’s military Equal Opportunity program.
“Ultimately, it was the end of the draft and the war in Vietnam, the willingness of most blacks to work within the system, and the reforms instituted ... that did the most to eliminate racial tension and violence and radical influence from the services,” Westheider wrote in “Fighting on Two Fronts.”
'Ain’t no damn [expletive] Marines'
One incident recounted in "Bloods" reveals just how much — or little — mlitary culture changed from the 1940s, when racism was institutional and acceptable, to the reforms of the 1970s. Edgar Huff joined the Marines in 1942, from Gadsen, Ala. He was so poor he had to borrow the $1.80 bus fare to Birmingham to get to his pre-enlistment physical exam.
Huff was one of the first 50 blacks to be accepted into the Negro Marine Corps. It was completely segregated, except for the white officers. Black Marines were not allowed on Camp Lejeune without a white escort. They trained nearby.
Six months into his Marine career, Huff was at an Atlanta bus station on furlough to visit his ill mother. Two white Marines accosted him: “'What you doing with that uniform on?’ I say, ‘I’m a Marine.’”
“They say, ‘There ain’t no damn [expletive] Marines.’”
Huff showed his furlough papers, but the men ripped them up and took him to jail for impersonating a Marine. “And there I was in jail on my first Christmas in the Marine Corps,” Huff recalled.
Still, he rose through the ranks, becoming the corps’ first black sergeant major and serving under 19 generals, including the one in Vietnam who commanded the largest Marine force ever assembled.
“But over the years I was so unhappy sometimes in the Marine Corps, I didn’t know what to do. If there’s ever a man who should be prejudiced as far as the white man is concerned, I should be,” he said. Huff related numerous indignities he’d endured. “I never let any of these things make me prejudiced right back,” he said.
“Especially in Vietnam. I am the sergeant major. I take care of all my men, black and white.” Huff was awarded the Bronze Star for the under-fire rescue of a white Marine in Da Nang in 1968.
When he retired in 1972, President Richard Nixon sent greetings, as did most of the generals on active duty, Huff says in the book. His hometown, Gadsen, made him honorary mayor and gave him the key to the city. Gov. George Wallace sent the state’s national Guard commander to express the state’s pride in him.
One evening after he retired, Huff was sitting out with friends and family on his patio at his home near Camp Lejeune, four white Marines drove up and threw four white phosphorous grenades at a gathering before speeding off.
“The Marine Corps never did nothin’ to them at all,” Huff said.
It made him angry, and it brought to mind even more terrifying times before the Civil Rights movement.
“I thought back to the time the Ku Kluxers came and took Mr. Sam Brewster away. I was 9 or 10 at the time,” Huff recalled.
He related the story: A black man tied to a tree and whipped nearly to death for daring to oppose a white man intent on raping his wife, “and in those times you weren’t supposed to do nuthin’ about it. And I thought about that many times when I was overseas and I had those beautiful machine guns. I would just wish to hell that I had something like that back in Alabama when those sonofabitches came through there,” he said. “I would have laid them out. ...”
After Johnson left office, haunted by Vietnam, all civil rights organizations opposed the war. But their momentum was gone, their influence had waned, their cause had lost the spotlight, because of Vietnam, Lucks says.
“The war unleashed the greatest wave of protest since the Civil War, which swamped the civil rights movement,” Luck writes. “It divided African Americans and the civil rights movement more than any other issue in the twentieth century. It left painful scars, which burned with a unique intensity.”