The War on Racism:
A Never-Ending Battle for the African-American Soldier
Drafted at birth! Retire in death!
Toward the late 1980's the United States grew increasingly concerned with Saddam Hussein and Iraq's interest with two of the Persian Gulfs' oil-rich nations--Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. On August 2, 1990, Iraq launched an attack on Kuwait. Because of that attack, the United Nations introduced a trade embargo with Iraq. In the meantime, Iraq had declared that Kuwait was its 19th Province.
After ignoring the United Nations Security Council's deadline to leave Kuwait, Iraq fired scud missiles at both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein's message to the United States was that the American troops would face the "Mother of All Battles." President George Bush consulted his military advisors including, Army General Colin Powell, the first African-American Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. On August 7, 1990, General Colin Powell's OPERATION DESERT SHIELD, marked the beginning of a series of strategies that were successfully utilized in OPERATION DESERT STORM on January 17, 1991.
Although General Colin Powell serves, for many, as a representation of an American success for racial minorities in the United States Military service, the obstacles continue to present. African-American soldiers still must fight the never-ending battle of racism regardless of where the action maybe—in his backyard or abroad. Young African-American men and women continue to enlist in the military with dreams of receiving college-tuition funding, travel, jobs and escapes out of the ghettos of America. Countless are rudely awaken to the history of their ancestors' experiences with racism in the same branches of service that they swear to represent today. The realization is driven primarily by their skin color, and it is that skin color that determines their worth, experience and quality of life. They discover that they are already drafted in the War on Racism and can only retire when they are dead.
Back Down Memory Lane
Every day, young African-American teenagers face tough choices involving what they want to do with their lives following high school. For those who live in the ghettos of America, lacking financial aid for college, and seeking to travel the world, they chose to enlist in the United States Military branches of service to remedy some of their problems. Like their fellow high school athletes vying a spot in college athletics, the Armed Services court these military hopefuls, promising great benefits and rewards. However, many of these young people are unaware of their ancestors' experiences with racism in the very branches of service they are swearing to represent today.
The early settlers of America built a democratic society with the use of indentured servants and African slaves. Only the slaves were left to become "permanent laborers" after the decline in the number of indentured servants (Sylvester 2). By 1650, slavery became legal in America, and the result was slaves were excluded from proceedings of this new democracy. Slavery survived four major wars.
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was the result of the notorious Boston Massacre (1770). Crispus Attucks, an alleged fugitive slave, and four white Boston Patriots allegedly attacked some British Redcoat troops who were ordered by the British government to patrol the American colonists. Leading the group, Attucks was killed along with four others. This sparked an outrage among the Colonists. It is believed that "Attucks' martyrdom" was the "catalyst for the American colonists' [sic] eventual war for liberty and freedom from British rule" (Sylvester 3). Crispus Attucks was among (5,000+) Blacks "who fought for independence" during this war which "ended with British General Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781" (Sylvester 4).
George Washington, then Commander of the Continental Army, was initially against the enlistment of Blacks. He later changed his mind after learning that the Royal Governor of Virginia, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, was recruiting "slaves and indentured servants into the British army" on the condition of freedom as the reward for services rendered to the King (Sylvester 4). In the end, they were eventually allowed to join the U.S. Continental Armed Forces.
Even though slavery was banned by 1808, the War of 1812 still displayed remnants of it. Blacks served on a variety of levels with significant representation on naval vessels and in both mixed and all-Black regiments. This conflict ended with the signing of the Peace Treaty of Ghent, December 24, 1814 (Sylvester 5).
A brief American war, the Mexican American War (1846-1848), again had a heavy presence of African-American volunteer soldiers. Although there was widespread opposition to their presence, the country was forced to accept them because of the need to guarantee a reliable fighting force. President James K. Polk, a southern slaveholder, had two major issues of concern to deal with at the time: Anti-slavery groups had accused him "of advancing the benefits of slaveholders" and there was the ever-present debate of expansionism of America in the southern part bordering Mexico (Sylvester 6). Following the admission of Texas into the Union as a slave state in 1836, ". . . the Mexican Government was dissatisfied with the settlement of the boundary which included the land around the Nueces River and the Rio Grande on the Mexican side" (Sylvester 6).
It was during the American Civil War (1861-1865) that African-Americans considered serving in the military would soon lead to their freedom and promotion to equal status with whites. This war began after "seven states decided to break away from the UNION on February 8, 1861" (Sylvester 7). African-Americans still had to endure animosity from both the Union and Confederate sides. In August 1862, Congress approved the rights of African-Americans to fight in the Civil War. And President Abraham Lincoln officially ended slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
During the American Civil War, approximately 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union army-twenty-one percent of the black male population aged eighteen to forty-five (Berlin, Reidy and Rowland 12). Although many were more than willing to enlist in the military, the price of doing so proved to be too costly. The Northerners had to submit to "white authority and military discipline with no chance of advancement to officer's rank . . ." and slaves had to risk escaping and leaving family members, despite the danger of being captured and severely punished in some cases, ending with death (Kynoch 105).
As the body count increased, whites still found ways of dealing with the problem of Blacks' enlistment in the military. In August 1862, the Governor of Iowa wrote a letter to the General-in-Chief of the Army in which he gave an example of the mentality of whites at the time. "When this war is over & we have summed up the entire loss of life it has imposed on this country I shall not have any regrets if it is found that a part of the dead are niggers and that all are not white men" (Berlin et al. 25).
Many Black soldiers, including whole regiments, were very disgruntled about the pay discrimination that was backed by the U.S. government itself. For example, "White privates received $13 per month plus a $3.50 monthly clothing allowance" (Kynoch 109). Black troops were to receive only $10 minus a $3 deduction for their clothing allowance. And to add insult to injury, for any Black soldier who protested, he faced the possibility of execution. Furthermore, many were just forced to wait for many months before receiving their money.
The Civil war, with a few exceptions, denied educated Blacks the opportunity to serve as officers. For those who did enlist, they were relegated to servant duties. Many of the soldiers joined the military as substitutes for both the Masters and wealthy free Blacks; and they, too, were sometimes not paid the promised bounty/substitution fees.
Sadness and in some cases, horrific experiences filled the Black military family life. Many soldiers had risked leaving their families behind to fend for themselves against white masters and civilians. When the family did travel with the father, there was no guarantee that they would be adequately taken care of by the military in exchange for the father's service. One soldier, Joseph Miller recalled:
My little boy about seven years of age had been sick and was slowly recovering . . . A mounted guard came to my tent and ordered my wife and children out of Camp. The morning was bitter cold . . . At night I went in search of my family . . . I found my wife and children shivering with cold and famished with hunger. They had not received a morsel of food all day. My boy was dead (Berlin et al. 107).
Some Blacks refused to enlist because they were denied equal rights and disrespected as men. However, they were collected for enlistment by the Union Army from the Confederate territory. Others were forced to join as result of cooperative efforts involving both the military, local police, their slave masters and, also, their very own Black brothers who were already serving in the various branches of service.
Black soldiers were disproportionately placed on the front line in combat. One white reporter for the New York Times at the time heard a Union General remark, "Well I guess we will . . . put those damned niggers from Massachusetts in the advance; we may as well get rid of them one time as another" (Berlin et al. 212a)
For the Black prisoners of war, there was certain torture awaiting them. For some, they were murdered in large numbers by the Confederate soldiers and slave masters. One Confederate soldier mentioned the slaughter of some Black troops: "The battlefield was sickening to behold. No orders, threats, or commands could restrain the men from vengeance on the negroes [sic], and they were piled in great heaps about the wagon, in the tangled brushwood, and upon the muddy and trampled road" (Cornish 177).
Despite the atrocities that Black soldiers and their families experienced during this war, they continued to believe in the opportunity to end slavery with their participation in the military.
The Struggle Continues
1865 marked the end of slavery officially. However, this did not stop the racism that continued to plague the African-American soldier and his people. It was in this same year that six white civil war veterans started the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. This organization was one of many that worked to restore the white race to its place of supremacy. Their first "Grand Wizard" was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who as a soldier once stated, "If we aint fightin' fer slavery then I'd like to know what we are fightin' fer" (Waller 10).
Even though the treatment of Blacks in the military began to improve during both World Wars I (1914-1918) and II (1939-1945), their skin color was the determining factor for their (place) in all branches of service. During these wars, he was still considered a second-class citizen:
The Negro is fighting a war for democracy, and for his dignity as a citizen; and, as a member of the armed forces, he is going to foreign fields to fight the same war all over again. This is carrying a 100 percent additional burden to what the whites are carrying (Scott 292).
In World War I, African-American women were only allowed to be nothing more than caregivers to soldiers. It wasn't until World War II that they were "admitted to training in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps" (Scott 295).
Equal treatment in the military was not the only thing the African-Americans fought for during this time. Their fellow civilian brothers and sisters had to fight for the War industry jobs as well. As Blacks began to relocate to major northern cities from the South for these new employment opportunities, they met resistance from not only some white residents but also from "municipal and state legislation" (Scott 295).
During World War I, the African-Americans in the dental and medical professions had to fight for the right to be admitted in the military. They worked in segregated work environments once they were admitted. They tolerated discrimination in promotions and job assignments.
Following their tour of duty, African-Americans returned to civilian life to face educational and employment problems. "Competition for what jobs were still available" sparked race riots between Blacks and whites in such cities like Chicago, East St. Louis, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. (Clement 535). Many college students returned to their schools behind in their studies; financial aid and personal problems were also factors for many who just couldn't return to school.
Unlike in the previous wars, African-Americans in World War II were finally allowed to serve in the military in various job assignments that were highly specialized (i.e., engineering in the Army, Air Force units, and other fields that required higher education.) Nevertheless, their war against the racism continued.
No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Nigger
". . . Our first truly technocratic war . . . the Vietnam conflict . . . was also the first time since before the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865, that black and white had shared the same foxholes, cheek by fowl, and become dependent on each other for survival. THERE WAS NO TIME FOR RACISM IN THE BUSH" [sic] (King). They continued to segregate themselves from each other once they returned home to America.
During this war, African-Americans were drafted in large numbers, especially those who were either too poor for college, illiterate, or they only desired to complete their tour of duty. At the same time, many whites made sure to avoid the Draft by taking advantage of the Student Deferment program for college students that was available with Selective Service registration. For those who were accepted, they studied subjects that required more use of the mind (i.e., sciences, engineering, medicine, etc.) than the body. The possible servicemen and women, to avoid the front line of combat, completed this Deferment program.
Back in the United States, African-Americans were fighting in a home front war on racism-the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout this home-based war, they were the victims of beatings, rapes, and hangings by whites. Towards the end of both wars, the Voting Rights Act was introduced in 1965 for African-Americans to finally gain a real voice in the processes of the American government.
Among the most prominent anti-war, draft evaders was "Cassius Clay, The Louisville Lip, who said: ‘Hell no, I won't go!' He had to be made an example of because he was symbolic of a rising tide of black, anti-war activity whose import sent shutters throughout the land of the free and the home of the brave. His case was followed closely overseas because the consciousness of the brothers had begun to change" (King).
The African-American soldier who came home from the war without an education and transferable job skills found that his fight to survive was worse than the war itself. Unfortunately, many turn to a life of alcohol, crime, drugs, and began to abuse their own families. Many suffered from post-war nightmares of killings and mental illnesses.
Although the African-American soldier continued to endure the racism of whites during this war like the previous, he found new strength to fight in the struggle of racism back home in America. Armed with the support of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power militant groups, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they could combat their home front enemies (i.e., white racists) who wanted to maintain their so-called supremacy over minorities, namely African-Americans. Forever scarred, his struggle continued even after the war.
Many African-American Gulf War veterans had returned to their homeland to find that what they had hoped for before their enlistment was far from the reality they experienced upon returning to the United States. These servicemen and women began to discover that the same racism and discrimination that their ancestors had endured was like their journey. Many of these soldiers took advantage of a little-known military program, the Selective Service Alternative program, for those who are totally against serving in the branches of service and for those who are willing to do so in a non-combat capacity. All applicants are deemed Conscientious Objectors (U.S. Selective Service).
Although the abuse from the military code and officials may not always be in the physical form, as suffered by many African-Americans before, it has now taken on a bureaucratic face; stinging just as severely. There has been a decent selection of cases that illustrate the current state of combat race relations. African-American Gulf War veteran, Clarence Davis, a nineteen-year-old at the time of his enlistment, was forced to choose between incarceration and recruitment in the U.S. military; he chose the Marines. A judge had given Mr. Davis this choice following his adolescent years in some youth correctional homes. Within five months of his enlistment, he was "among the first 500,000 U.S. troops deployed to the Persian Gulf" (Esch 1). After his decision to not fight against Iraq, he wrote in a letter, "I can never support the same country or thought that killed millions of Native Americans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Africans, Iraqis, Panamanians, etc. [sic]. I can never support the same thought that does not include me in the Constitution that I supposedly enlisted to uphold and defend . . . I am not a Muslim, but another reason for my refusal to fight came from the immorality of killing a Muslim brother or sister" (Esch 1). Following this, Davis, who was unaware of "his right to apply for Conscientious Objector (CO) status," was arrested and "found guilty of desertion and refusing to obey a direct order" (Esch 1). He was refused civilian legal representation (a military requirement for servicemen and women charged with military crimes) because it was considered "too expensive to fly someone in for the trial" (Esch 1). Soon, Davis was back in the United States at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina with his fellow Marine prisoners who also chose not to fight. Davis found himself, as an African-American caught in the global racial divide. He understood what the implications of being of color in America and through combat gained an insight into the struggles of those internationally.
Another African-American Gulf War soldier became the victim of racism and discrimination. Danny Gillis (presently known as Kweisi Raghib Ehoize) who also refused to fight applied for (CO) status and was sent to Kuwait anyway. The Army in October 1990 had "created a rule requiring that those who had applied for CO status be deployed even though the processing of their applications was incomplete" (Esch 2). Because he had "refused to board the bus that would take his division to the airstrip . . ., Ehoize was beaten by two white Marines who tried to force him on the bus. Though he had broken no laws, Ehoize was handcuffed and taken to the brig by the military police" (Ensign 281).
Captain Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, an African-American physician, and the highest-ranking officer, refuse to fight. Stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, "she was arrested . . . and charged with desertion with intent to shirk hazardous duty" following the activation of her medical unit. Unlike others, she was the "first resister to base her defense on international law, arguing that she had not just the legal right but the duty to refuse given that war crimes could be reasonably anticipated. This argument was built on evidence provided by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who had visited Iraq amid the bombing campaign and returned with footage documenting the systematic destruction of hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings" (Esch 3). Because "thousands of GIs were inoculated without their consent with experimental vaccines for botulism and anthrax, allegedly to protect them from Iraqi weapons, Huet-Vaughn's attorney's . . . relied on the Nuremburg Code, which forbids experimentation on people without their consent. As a physician, Huet-Vaughn would have been expected to inject soldiers in violation of the principles established at Nuremburg" (Ensign 293).
At Fort Hood, Texas, sixty African-American National Guards "protested inadequate training and inequitable leave policies. Though more than forty white Guard members had gone AWOL the previous day over similar grievances and where [sic] not charged, three of the African-American men involved in the protest were court-martialed for conspiracy to lead a strike and soliciting others to strike. Robert Pete was sentenced to six years in prison, Dwayne Brown was given one year, and Derrick Guidry, the only one of the three represented by a civilian attorney, received no jail term but was given a ‘bad' discharge" (Ensign 294).
The anti-war soldiers, referenced above, represent African-American servicemen and women who related to the similar experiences of those soldiers of color who served before them, and this led to criticism of the United States military policies on war. Fighting for democracy in foreign lands was questioned by these servicemen and women who came home to America where they have yet to fully receive the same freedom that was promised to their mothers and fathers before them.
Historically speaking, the African-American soldier has always had to fight in more than one battle at the same time. From the first War that they could fight in, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and up until today's most recent battle, Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), they will always do so because of their skin color.
Over the past 200+ years, African-Americans have won many small battles against racism here in America. Slavery ended in 1865. They could enlist in all branches of military service as Officers starting in World War I and II to serve as dentists, doctors, engineers, nurses, and other highly-trained servicemen and women. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave them a Voice in the processes of the United States Government.
Although the Draft is no longer in effect per se, the African-American race will always fight in the war on racism if they are Black. They will always be drafted at birth for this war and will retire only in death.
The overall view of African-American soldiers who served all branches of service in the United States military was based on the following stereotypes:
1. Black people do not make good soldiers; they are not susceptible to discipline; they are not brave.
2. Black people and whites cannot be employed in mixed units.
3. Black people may make good soldiers if commanded by white officers.
4. Black people have not the temperament for making good sailors.
5. Black officers are unable to command the respect of their own race.
6. Black people have never successfully proved that they could stand up under direct fire, although they make good parade soldiers
For over 200+ years, written records have been kept for educating the masses on the African-American's contribution to the protection of this country's security and the spreading of democracy. According to all the authors in this paper, the Black soldier will remain a soldier in the war on racism.
The most recent incident of the African-American soldier who allegedly caused the deaths of two of his fellow soldiers (with hand grenades) in Operation Iraqi Freedom is an example of a Black soldier who was against fighting for a country that continues the racism that victimized his forefathers and mothers who had served in the same branch of service he is in presently.
Despite the initial resistance of allowing Blacks to serve in the United States Military, they continued to believe in fighting for their freedom of equality. They fought for the right to attend Officer Training Corps, job assignments that would allow them to utilize their college education, and promotions.
If there is little that can be done by and for the offender, there is much that the victim of unreason can do for himself. He, at least, has a motive in dispelling his own ignorance; and through the knowledge, he can fortify himself with intelligent self-respect (Bond 287).
Berlin, Ira, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie Rowland (editors) Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. Series II-The Black Military Experience New York: 1982
Bond, Horace M. "The Negro in the Armed Forces of the United States Prior to World War" Journal of Negro Education 12 (1943): 268-287
Clement, Rufus E. "Problems of Demobilization and Rehabilitation of the Negro Soldier after World Wars I and II" Journal of Negro Education 12 (1943): 533-542
Cornish, Dudley. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 New York: 1956
Ensign, Tod. "Military Resisters in the Gulf War": Cynthia Peter's ed. Collateral Damage: the New World Order at Home and Abroad. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press. 1994
Esch, Emily. "The Greatest Gulf War Heroes: In Honor of Our Resisters." Against the Current: 2001 Solidarity. 1 May 2003 <http://solidarity.igc.org/atc/90Esch.html>
King, William M. "Black America and the War in Vietnam" Spring 1995 University of Colorado-Boulder <http://spot.colorado.edu/~kingwm/SyllBlackAmerica.html>
Kynoch, Gary. "Terrible Dilemmas: Black Enlistment in the Union Army during the American Civil War" 18 (1997): 105-127
Scott, Emmett J. "The Participation of Negroes in World War I: An Introductory Statement" Journal of Negro Education 12 (1943): 288-297
Sylvester, Melvin. "African American Freedom Fighters: Soldiers for Liberty" February 1995. Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus <http://liu.edu/cwp/library/aaffsfl.htm>.
United States. Selective Service System: Conscious Objection and Alternative Service: <http://www.sss.gov/FSconsobj.htm>.
Waller, Willard. Veteran Comes Back New York: Dryden Press, Inc. 1944
© Aron Prince 2017 (an old college paper)