“More Likely to be Attacked Than Honored”: Changing the Way We Remember Black Soldiers

On Veterans’ Day last year, the Equal Justice Initiative released a new report, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” that says, between 1877 and 1950, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans.”[1]  The report supplemented the organization’s 2015 report, “Lynching in America,” that documented 4,075 lynchings, which is 800 more than any previous tally.  Although historians have noted that white supremacists disproportionately targeted black veterans for assault and murder, the subject has never been examined so comprehensively. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, lynched, or threatened.  Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in an interview that the report should change the way we remember black veterans. “We do so much in this country to celebrate and honor folks who risk their lives on the battlefield,” Stevenson said, “but we don’t remember that black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.”[2] 

As sobering as his comment is, Stevenson left out black soldiers who were violently assaulted, unfairly punished, or disproportionately among the casualties while they were serving in the military.  Whereas “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans” tells the well-known story of Isaac Woodard, who was blinded in 1946 by a South Carolina policeman while he was travelling home from his service in the Pacific, Integrating the U.S. Military tells the story of Private Felix Hall, who was lynched at Fort Benning in the spring of 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor.  The book examines such incidents to provide a historical context for understanding the role that violence, harsh justice, and death have played in the black military experience since World War II. 

The chapter on the resistance of black soldiers during World War II, for example, makes the pervasiveness of racial violence a central theme.  Beyond the indignity of having to serve in a segregated military, African Americans experienced many varieties of racial discrimination.  The most egregious were attacks by white law enforcement officers who patrolled the towns near the southern military bases where most black soldiers were posted.  Perhaps the best example is the Alexandria Riot of 1942. 

Alexandria, Louisiana was surrounded by three large military bases, which brought thousands of black and white soldiers downtown to mingle with civilians every Saturday night.  On January 10, 1942, it was a typical Saturday night until a black soldier responded to a white woman driver honking at him while he crossed Lee Street.  He asked the white woman, “Would you hit a veteran?”  She responded by calling over a city policeman, who arrested the soldier for “using vile and unnecessary language.”  A group of black soldiers thought the arrest was excessive, and they crowded around the policeman and his prisoner.  In very short order, white M.P.s, state troopers, and National Guardsmen from nearby Camp Beauregard reinforced the Alexandria police.  Instead of restoring order, however, the armed white men began firing volley after volley of shots into businesses patronized by African Americans.  Local NAACP leaders said they targeted black soldiers.  At least ten African Americans were killed, and no charges were filed. The fact that military personnel joined the police in their rampage illustrates how the military used violence, as did civilian law enforcement, to maintain racial subordination and segregation.

The chapter that examines black soldiers in Vietnam shows that integration did not end discrimination, which often meant black soldiers died.  Because the Selective Service drafted African Americans in disproportionate numbers and the military assigned African Americans to the infantry in disproportionate numbers, black soldiers suffered disproportionately high casualties.  African American made up around 11% of the U.S. population in 1966, but black soldiers made up 15% of the forces serving in Vietnam and accounted for 22% of the casualties to that date.  Although the black casualty rate declined after 1967, the overall death rate for black soldiers was approximately 30% higher than for all U.S. forces fighting in Southeast Asia. 

This chapter also shows a pattern of racial discrimination in the administration of military justice.  To give one example, a 1972 Department of Defense investigation of military justice at several bases revealed that African Americans made up over 34% of the court-martials.  Such high numbers should prompt historians to ask whether mass incarceration, which has emerged as a major topic in the history of African American civilians, existed in the military.

The book also illustrates how resentment over being targeted for unfair treatment and violence led to resistance by black soldiers that, at times, generated enough disorder to force the military command to address racial discrimination.  During World War II, the resistance of black soldiers helped lead to deploying black troops overseas and to the trial of integrated combat troops following the Battle of the Bulge.  During Vietnam, racial disturbances at Camp Le June, North Carolina in 1969, which left one soldier dead and dozens injured, initiated another wave of military reform that is examined in the chapter on the history of the Defense Race Relations Institute.  Racism was one of the factors that caused the riots since many black soldiers had been outraged when white soldiers celebrated the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  The problems with race relations at Camp Le June made the national news, prompted the creation of a special House Armed Services Committee, and ultimately led to the creation of the Defense Race Relations Institute in 1971. 

Even within this effort to Defense Race Relations Institute, violent threats against African Americans loomed large.  “We had people that threatened our lives,” said one black instructor.  “I was threatened, so I bought a .38 Special that I kept in my car when I drove to work. . . . Even in my office, I would have bricks and stones thrown into the office windows.” By not quitting in response to these threats, this instructor resisted attempts to thwart reform in the military.  His courage shows that black soldiers were not only disproportionately targeted by racists, but they also played an outsize role in ending racial discrimination. 

If the targeting of black soldiers and veterans became central to our understanding of the black military experience, it would transform the history of the U.S. military and of American race relations.  The cooperation between military authorities and civilian law enforcement to keep black soldiers in their place disproves assertions by military leaders during World War II that race relations were a civilian affair outside their jurisdiction.  Racial disparities in the draft and in the military justice system during the Vietnam War question the commitment of military leaders to integration.  Yet, to understand these issues, one must look outside the military to the broader American society that maintained segregation and that accepted racial inequality in the operation of the Selective Service and the criminal justice system.  Integrating the U.S. Military explores these and other links between military life and civilian society, and in the process, makes the case for historians to examine this interaction more consistently.

Black soldiers lend new clarity to the investigation of American race relations because, when they donned the uniform of their nation and fought to defend it, they challenged stereotypes about African Americans in ways that domestics and sharecroppers could not.  That is why they were targeted so frequently.  At the same time, paying attention to the impact of black soldiers when they resisted discrimination adds a grass-roots element to the top-down story of how the military struggled to improve race relations.  It also sheds new light on the influence of black veterans on the civil rights movement.  Thus, the contributions that black soldiers made to overcoming racism are as important to remember as their contributions to the defense of the United States.  This legacy only becomes visible when the enormity of the attacks on black soldiers is recognized as a central part of their history. 

 

[1] Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” http://eji.org/reports/online/lynching-in-america-targeting-black-veterans (accessed April 27, 2017).

[2] Peter C. Baker, “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans,” The New Yorker (Nov. 27, 2016), http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-tragic-forgotten-history-of-black-military-veterans (accessed April 27, 2017) 

 

 

Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippiand a fellow at the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. He is the author of Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom. His most recent book is Integrating the US Military.

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