The Defining Generation
Dr. Martin Luther King
say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and
frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply
rooted in the American dream.
have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true
meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that
all men are created equal."
have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former
slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down
together at a table of brotherhood.
have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state,
sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed
into an oasis of freedom and justice.
have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where
they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of
a dream today.
Martin Luther King
The term "Civil Rights" conjures images of slavery, the American Civil War, segregated communities in our Southern States, along with marches and demonstrations in the 1960s to force American society to live up to the words echoed in the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Of a truth however, the
issue of equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, has existed
since the birth of our country. While the Civil War settled once and for
all the issue of slavery in the United States, it failed to achieve the
American credo echoed in the document that founded our nation.
Black Americans have served
in the United States military since long before there was a United States
of America. During the early days of settlement, British colonists
welcomed both slaves and free blacks into provincial militias to defend
small settlements from attack by native Indian tribes as well as European
powers. As the population of Black soldiers grew however, White Americans
in the colonies began to fear the potential for slave rebellions, and
started excluding Blacks from military service. In 1639 Virginia passed a
law prohibiting any Black American from serving in the military. The New
England colony of Massachusetts followed with a similar law in 1656, and
Connecticut passed a similar law in 1661.
Despite such laws, when
enemies threatened the American colonies, Black Americans were quick to
serve and were welcomed as needed soldiers. Black militiamen fought and
died during King William's War (1689 – 1697), Queen Anne's War (1702 –
1713), and the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763). When the shot that
was heard round the world was fired at Lexington on April 19, 1775, one of
the eight American casualties was Prince Estabrook, a Black militiaman.
During the American
Revolution no fewer than 5,000 African Americans served in General George
Washington's Continental Army and thousands more served in local militias.
Despite the fact that these volunteers were badly needed for the war
effort, even as early as 1776 there was a prevailing attitude that the
Black soldier was inferior to the White. Unlike later wars, during the
American Revolution free Blacks and slaves were integrated into white
units, but most were relegated to support roles as substitute soldiers for
white colonists. Most served as guides, general laborers, messengers, and
teamsters. Black slaves who
distinguished themselves in battle were promised freedom for their valor,
but in the support roles where most Blacks served, it was difficult for
then to demonstrate the battle prowess that could earn them freedom.
When the war ended and the
demand for volunteer soldiers diminished, the United States quickly forgot
the dedicated service of the Black soldier and returned to segregation in
the South and a basically all-White Army throughout America. When Congress
passed the Militia Act in 1792, the implicit intent was to limit the
American militia to "able-bodied white male citizen(s) between the
ages of 18 and 45." Such prejudice became even more blatant in the
1798 act to formally organize the United States Marine Corps. That
legislation excluded "Negroes, mulattos (of African and European
descent), and Indians" from service.
The fledgling new United
States Navy became the one area where Black Americans could find some
semblance of equal opportunity. When the War of 1812 began, fully ten
percent of the United States Naval force was Black. With the beginning of
that war, the Army once again accepted Blacks into military service
(though the Marine Corps remained totally White until World War II). These
Black soldiers and sailors served honorably throughout that brief war.
General Andrew Jackson, whose force at New Orleans during the famous
battle of 1814 included two Black battalions, noted: "I expected much
from you…but you surpass my hopes…the American nation shall applaud
your valor, as your General now praises your ardor."
When peace at last returned
to the United States in 1814, the Black soldier found his services no
longer needed or wanted. In 1820 the United States Army ordered that no
blacks be accepted as recruits. In 1839 the Navy limited its own ranks to
a maximum of five percent of black sailors. The moratorium on military
service for Blacks continued virtually unabated until 1863 when, at the
height of the Civil War, they were out of necessity finally allowed once
again to serve as a result of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Even while those in the
North railed against the slavery of the South however, the racial
prejudice of the American Yankee was quite evident in the practice of
segregation of Whites and Blacks. It took nearly two years of bitter
warfare and the possibility of a Union loss of the war to convince the
Northerners to reluctantly admit Black Americans into military service.
Frederick Douglas pushed the cause to force the Union Army to finally
admit Black recruits arguing sarcastically that: "Colored men were
good enough to fight under Washington, but they are not good enough to
fight under McClellan."
When at last President
Lincoln opened the military service to Black volunteers on New Years Day,
1863, these soldiers were placed in segregated, all-black units. Almost
universally they were under the command of White officers. In the Union
Army of the Civil War, Black soldiers were encouraged to fight for their
own freedom, and then denied equal opportunity in service. Not only was
there a prejudice against Black soldiers in positions of leadership and
authority, the inequality was more vividly apparent in the soldier's pay.
White Union soldiers were paid thirteen dollars a month, their Black
counterparts only seven dollars a month. Such was the subtle hypocrisy
that continued in the American military until AFTER the end of World War
During the Civil War Black
soldiers served with a distinction in battle that, though not unique in
comparison to prior conflicts, was at last recognized. Twenty-five Black
Americans received Medals of Honor for their battlefield valor, and in
1865 Martin R. Delany became our Nation's first Black field officer when
he was commissioned as a major in the Union Army.
Among the heroes who earned
Medals of Honor in the Civil War was a free Negro who enlisted from
Baltimore "to save the country from ruin". After serving through
engagements at Yorktown, Pennsylvania, and Fort Fisher, Sergeant Major
Christian Fleetwood noted in his diary: "This year has brought
bout many changes that at the beginning were or would have been thought
impossible. The close of the year finds me a soldier for the cause of my
Sergeant Major Fleetwood
demonstrated that the Black soldier was an equal to his White counterpart,
earning the Medal of Honor while carrying the flag of the United States
through the horrible fight at Chapin's Farm, Virginia, in the fall of
1864. Despite this recognition, and the great strides towards acceptance
of the Black soldier earned during the Civil War, Fleetwood was realistic.
Following the war he authored a pamphlet titled The Negro as Soldier
in which he wrote:
"After each war, of
1776, of 1812, of 1861, history repeats itself in the absolute effacement
of remembrance of the gallant deeds done for the country by its brave
black defenders and in their relegation to outer darkness. History further
repeats itself in the fact that in every war so far known to this country,
the first blood, and, in some cases, the last also, has been shed by the
faithful Negro, and this in spite of all the years of bondage and
oppression, and wrongs unspeakable."
The valor demonstrated by
Black soldiers of both sides in the Civil War led to the formation of
all-Black cavalry units to defend settlers in the American West. Known as Buffalo
Soldiers, these Americans established a tradition of valor and
service. Of the 426 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers for action
during the Indian Campaigns of the American West, eighteen were presented
to Black soldiers.
Until 1948 however, in the
United States Army, Black soldiers were segregated in all-Black
units…certainly no indication of changing prejudices. The United States
Navy, once the bastion of acceptance for Black volunteers, demonstrated
similar prejudices even more vividly following the Civil War. While Blacks
continued to be recruited for the Navy, most were relegated to menial
tasks as cooks and stewards. There was no issue of segregation in the
Marine Corps – it remained lily white.
An indirect result of
military service was the opportunity for Black soldiers to demonstrate
their equality to their white fellow soldiers. Though the Army remained
segregated, all-Black units such as the 10th and 12th
Cavalry fought alongside White regiments. In battles such as the famous
Spanish-American War charge at San Juan Hill, these Buffalo Soldiers did
their duty so well that the white soldiers fighting next to them could not
deny their valor. Though only one Black soldier earned a Medal of Honor in
that historic battle, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt later spoke of the
Buffalo Soldiers' valor and devotion to duty when he said: "I
don't think that any Rough Rider will ever forget the tie that binds us to
the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry."
When given opportunity on
the battlefield, Black Americans were proving that all men regardless of
race are created equal. Those who witnessed their service and sacrifice
could not help but change long-ingrained misperceptions, stereotypes, and
prejudices against men of color. During the Spanish American War, six
Black servicemen received Medals of Honor, four of them for risking their
lives to save a trapped element of White soldiers at Tayacoba Bay in Cuba.
The opportunity for Black
soldiers to demonstrate their valor and thereby change the prejudices
around them continued to be rather limited however. Prejudice within
American society, as well as in the military, continued in its age-old
traditions. When World War I began more than 2 Million Negroes registered
for the draft, presenting some serious questions to a still segregated
Where would such a large force of Black volunteers be
trained? Certainly they would need a separate (from the white draftees)
facility, as the two races could not train together.
In what units would these Black soldiers serve? Segregation
of Black soldiers from Whites was a time-honored tradition.
What should be done if some of these men qualified for
commissions as officers? It was still widely believed that the Black man
lacked the intelligence and leadership abilities of his White counterpart.
In all, nearly a
half-million Black Americans were trained and readied for service with the
American Expeditionary force. By mid-1917 a number of Black soldiers were
training at Camp Dodge near Des Moines, Iowa, where 625 of them earned
commissions as second lieutenants. The war department established the
Ninety-second and Ninety-third Divisions, nearly all-Black in composition
but now at least commanded by a large contingent of Black officers as
well. (During the war Fort Dodge trained and commissioned 639 Black
American officers, a historic stride. Even so, though 13 percent of the
American World War I active Army was Black, less than seven tenths of one
per cent were commissioned as officers.)
Despite these great
strides, change can be agonizingly slow, and World War I American society
continued to cling to its views of the Negro as inferior to the white. In
the military, although 140,000 Black soldiers were deployed to Europe
where no less than 40,000 of them saw combat and served with honor and
distinction, the accepted practice was to relegate Black soldiers to
support tasks. They served the Army as janitors, stevedores, cooks, and in
other menial tasks. Black combat units were unceremoniously turned over to
the control of the French Army causing Colonel William Hayward, commander
of the 396th Infantry Regiment to comment: "Our great American
general (John J. Pershing) simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it
on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away."
It was a stinging
indictment of the man known as Black Jack Pershing for his service
as a White officer in the Black 10th Cavalry during the Indian Campaigns
and the Spanish-American War. To the general's credit, early in the War
when the British government requested that Negro troops NOT be sent
overseas, Pershing returned his official reply to note that, "Colored
combat divisions" were being sent to France and: "I
cannot and will not discriminate against these men."
The General's admirable
statement aside, discrimination and segregation were a way of life for the
soldiers who would one day father the Greatest Generation. Many White
soldiers refused to serve with Black soldiers, and at home the Jim Crow
laws forced Black soldiers to sit in the back of troop trains, far behind
the white troopers, when regiments were transported to awaiting ships from
their training camps.
During the war, two
soldiers of Colonel Hayward's 369th Infantry became the first
American enlisted men, Black or White, to be awarded the French Croix de
Guerre. Those few Black units that did see combat served with great
distinction. Along the way Black soldiers earned hundreds of Croix de
Guerres, dozens of Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars—but NO
Medals of Honor.*
Thousands gave their lives on the battlefield, proving that death was the
one force in the world of American military that did NOT discriminate
against any man on the basis of race.
Beyond that however, World
War I was NOT a defining moment in the push for American civil rights.
Race riots in the military resulted in deaths and court martial, verbal
and physical abuse by civilians directed towards Black soldiers training
at Spartanburg, South Carolina, made headlines, and labor strikes by Negro
stevedores tended to overshadow the valor of the Black soldier on the
battlefield. Major General Robert Lee Bullard, who commanded the Second
Army including the Ninety-second division, wrote in his memoirs that the
Negro soldier was, "Lazy, slothful, superstitious,
imaginative…if you need combat soldiers, and especially if you need them
in a hurry, don't put your time upon Negroes."
Such was the attitude that
proliferated throughout much of America in the post-World War I years.
Between 1918 and 1937 the Negro soldier presence dropped to less than two
percent of the Army and National Guard. It became increasingly apparent
that, despite the Black man's efforts to prove his equal in time of war,
military service alone could not achieve the dream of Americans not being
judged by the color of one's skin but by the content of their character.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia,
on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the son and grandson of
prominent Southern ministers. Reverend A.D. Williams, young King's
grandfather, pastured the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and was
founder of that city's NAACP chapter. Martin Luther King, Sr. went on to
succeed his father as that church's pastor, and himself became a leader in
the civil rights movement. He became the single most pivotal force in
equal treatment for all.
In his youth King had
witnessed first hand the hypocrisy of American society in so much as the
civil rights of Black Americans was concerned. When King was seven years
old, West Point cadet Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. walked up to salute General
John J. Pershing to receive his diploma and commission as a second
lieutenant in the U.S. army. He was the first Negro since Charles D.
Young, forty-seven years earlier, to graduate from the Point. The son of
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., one of the few high ranking Black officers
still in the Army after World War I, as cadet the younger man had not been
spared prejudice and discrimination at the U.S. Military Academy. White
Upperclassmen tried to force him out with silent treatment, instructors
did their best to derail his plans for graduation, and during his four
years as a cadet he lived alone in segregation, while other cadets shared
In 1940 Captain Davis was a
professor of military science at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama when
his father was promoted to Brigadier General. That same year President
Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act which included
verbiage designed to end racial discrimination in the military forces. The
following year the younger Davis broke the "color barrier" in
the Army Air Corps, which had long maintained that Negroes "lacked
technical ability to fly airplanes." In the years of war that
followed, the Tuskegee Airman would prove this prejudice totally in error.
Twelve years old when World
War II broke out, King no doubt also knew the stories of how other elder
Black brothers had tried to earn their own place in the Greatest
Generation's effort to save our world. Everyone, it seemed, knew the
story of Dorie Miller, the Black mess steward on board the U.S.S.
Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
At the start of World War
II the U.S. Navy was among the most hostile of the services towards Black
recruits. There were no Black officers in the Navy, and those Black men
who chose to serve in enlisted roles were banished to the galley to cook
or serve meals to officers in their quarters. They were not allowed combat
training and most served their time without ever being allowed to train
with or handle any form of weaponry. Despite this lack of training, when
Japanese bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Messman
Miller ignored the danger of incoming rounds and roiling explosions to
race towards a silent machinegun. With no prior training, the brave
23-year old sailor raked the heavens with return fire, shooting down at
least three enemy aircraft until his ammunition was exhausted.
One would think the actions
of Dorie Miller provided ample proof to the World War II Navy that Black
sailors were no different from White sailors. Six months after Pearl
Harbor Dorie Miller received our Country's second highest award, the Navy
Cross, from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. The young hero became a symbol of
Black valor for millions of young black boys back home, his picture
repeatedly published and his name a household word. But during World War
II Navy traditions and prejudices died hard. A year after his heroic
action the aircraft carrier Liscome Bay was sunk at sea by a
Japanese torpedo. Among the dead, which included most of the crew, was
Dorie Miller…a combat hero who was still at sea and still serving his
Nation in uniform…as a Naval mess steward!
Into the 1960s the Greatest
Generation, despite its valor and sacrifice to save our world, continued
to struggle with the prejudices of its forefathers. In World War II
segregated military units continued to be SOP (Standard Operating
Procedure), with the soldiers of many white units refusing to fight side
by side with their Black counterparts. The perception of the Black soldier
as inferior both intellectually and militarily continued to relegate most
Negroes to support roles. More than one million Blacks served in the
United States Armed Forces during World War II (90% of them in the Army),
with a half-million serving in overseas duty. It is a sad commentary that
75% of these were confined to roles of quartermaster, engineer or
transportation. While young Black men and women (nearly 4,000 Black women
served in World War II) pleaded for an equal opportunity to participate in
the defense of their Nation in the same manner as other Americans, it was
often an opportunity denied.
Those soldiers who did see
combat, particularly those of all-Black units like the Tuskegee Airmen,
the Ninety-second Division and the 614th Tank Destroyer
Battalion, served and sacrificed with the same valor as other soldiers. A
1943 War Department press release listed nearly 300 high awards including
Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars to Black soldiers during
the war. But of 455 Medals of Honor awarded during or in the ten years
following World War II, not ONE was awarded to a Black American
serviceman, sailor or Marine.**
On the positive side of the
ledger, the service of these Black Americans did set in motion more badly
needed changes in the segregated and highly prejudicial military
establishment. In 1941 the U.S. Army began integrating its officers'
candidate schools, and on June 1, 1942, the United States Marine Corps
admitted its first Black recruit in a century. He was a former Nashville,
Tennessee, dogcatcher named George Thompson. On March 17, 1944, as the war
was winding to a conclusion, the U.S. Navy commissioned its first group of
black officers who became known as the "Golden Thirteen." Two
months after the Golden Thirteen got their commissions; the War Department
issued a directive prohibiting racial discrimination in transportation and
recreational facilities on all army bases.
Ten years before Rosa Parks
refused to give up her seat and move to the rear of a bus in Montgomery,
Alabama, a young Army Lieutenant on a military base in Texas similarly
refused to move to the back of a bus. His action was seen as a disobedient
act that prompted criminal charges, but he was completely vindicated at
his subsequent court-martial. Years later that same young soldier,
Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, would again challenge the racial barriers in
the United States, this time as a civilian, when he became the first Black
professional baseball player.
The most sweeping change in
American civil rights since the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the
U.S. Constitution following the Civil War was probably Executive Order
9981, issued by President Harry S Truman on July 26, 1948. That act, which
desegregated all elements of the U.S. Military and established the Fahy
Committee to examine all existing regulations and practices in the
military, placed in effect a National policy of "equality of
treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without
regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
Six months after Executive
Order 9981 was issued, the young son of a poor Mississippi sharecropper
received his flight wings at Pensacola, Florida, to become the Navy's
first Black aviator. Jesse LeRoy Brown's odyssey had not been without its
share of confronting hate and prejudice. Naval instructors had been quite
to the point in telling him during training that, "No nigger would
ever sit his ass in a Navy cockpit."
When hostilities broke out
in Korea on June 25, 1950, Ensign Brown's ship the U.S.S. Leyte,
returned from its post in the Mediterranean for repairs before assignment
to Korean waters. The return to American shores afforded the young Black
pilot opportunity for a five-day visit with his wife and young daughter in
Mississippi. Following the all-too-brief reunion, while en route to
Birmingham, Alabama, to catch a flight back to his ship for deployment to
combat duty, he was almost denied a seat on the bus…because he was
Three months later Ensign
Brown's Corsair lay crumpled on a Korean hillside as yet another Black
hero shed the same red blood as his white counterparts, in the service of
his country. But to the men with whom he served in combat, Jesse Brown had
become simply a Naval Aviator…not a Black aviator. In his service during
time of war, Brown at last found that measure of civil rights and respect
he was due. In his last moments of life a White fellow pilot, Lieutenant
Thomas Hudner, deliberately crashed his own fighter on the hillside in a
failed rescue attempt. Hudner then stayed beside Jesse until he died. (For
his own actions, Tom Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor and Jesse Brown
received the Distinguished Flying Cross. On March 18, 1972, the U.S. Navy
commissioned the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown (DD-1089), the first Naval
vessel in history to be named for a Black American.)
The Korean War became the
first conflict since the war of 1812 in which, in SOME cases, Black and
White soldiers and sailors fought side-by-side in the same units. The
process of integration continued throughout the war and, along the way,
transformed the Marine Corps beyond almost any other branch of service. At
the beginning of the Korean War Blacks numbered only 1,075 troops in the
nearly 75,000-man strong Corps. Nearly half of these Black Marines served
as stewards. By the end of the Korean War the Marine Corps achieved almost
total integration at all levels.
Of 139 soldiers cited with
the Medal of Honor for their valor in battle during the Korean War, two
were posthumous awards to Black soldiers. It marked the first time since
the Spanish-American War that any Black soldier would be so highly
recognized for his heroism and sacrifice. That fact aside, both Private
First Class William Henry Thompson and Sergeant Cornelius Charlton earned
their Medals of Honor while serving in the 24th Infantry Regiment, a unit
that even during the Korean War remained a segregated all-Black Regiment.
In 1954, a year after the
end hostilities in Korea, the last segregated military unit was disbanded.
That same year the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board
of Education to integrate another American establishment…the school
system. It was also the same year that a sailor named Carl Brashear broke
the color bearer to become the Navy's first Black diver. The acclaimed
2001 movie "Men of Honor" details his efforts and provides a
somber picture of a military force integrated by law, but still divided by
intense prejudice and hatred.
The following year the
young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. received his degree in systematic
theology, to return to the South and pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist
Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The struggle for equal rights for Black
Americans was moving from its battlefront in the military, which was now
quickly becoming a model for the rest of American society, to the cities
and towns of America.
Five days after Rosa Parks
refused to adhere to Montgomery city rules mandating segregation on buses,
the city's Black residents launched a boycott and elected Reverend King
president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The
action launched King into a leadership role in the growing Civil Rights
movement and, two years later along with other southern Black ministers,
he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In the
interim, in December 1956, the US Supreme Court declared Alabama's
segregation laws unconstitutional.
As the Civil Rights
movement became almost another American Civil War, many leaders emerged in
both the Black and White communities. American servicemen were called out
to enforce racial integration in Arkansas, and to protect the civil rights
of students in Alabama, as well as elsewhere. Dr. King continued to rise
in prominence as the leading Black voice for civil rights, much more so
after his house was bombed and he was arrested and convicted along with
other leaders on charges of conspiring to interfere with bus company
operations through his boycott.
In 1958 Dr. King published
his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The
following year he made a tour of India learning Gandhian non-violent
strategies to social change. It was Dr. King's advocacy for changing
America through non-violent protest that perhaps most marked him as an
American hero of the 1960s, but it was his oratorical skills that made him
As the 60s generation came
of age other leaders arose within the Black community, including the more
militant leaders like Stokeley Carmichael and Malcolm X. Carmichael, for
his own part, originally joined in the organization of the Student
Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1960 in an effort to get out the
vote in the elections of that year. As the civil rights movement became
more and more a violent battleground in the years that followed,
Carmichael became active in the Black Panther Party.
Malcolm X, the son of a
Baptist minister in Lansing, Michigan, also drew a wide following. Born
Malcolm Little, as a young man he had witnessed the burning of the family
home by the Ku Klux Klan, and a few years later the murder of his father.
Malcolm always believed his father's death was directly related to the Ku
Klux Klan, and lost not only his father in the tragedy, but his mother who
never recovered from her grief and had to be committed to a mental
Beyond their efforts to
gain civil rights for all Americans regardless of race, these three
prominent leaders of the movement had at least one additional attribute in
common; all were gifted and skillful orators. Their message resonated
across a broad segment of American society, Black and White, and primarily
among the young.
The 60s and the young
people of our Nation will long be remembered for their radical and
revolutionary rejection of tradition, and for their rebellion against
parents, government, the church, and other forms of authority. Ours is a
generation today that is often castigated for a moral and spiritual decay
in our Nation during the period.
It is true that these
young, in their own search for meaning and purpose, often dropped out of
established social custom to reject ageless traditions and ways of life.
At the same time, they may have proved the words of Thomas Jefferson that
"a little rebellion now and then is a good thing." Among the
traditions many of them rejected from the generation of their fathers and
grandfathers, were the long-held racial prejudices that divided our
The civil rights movement
provided these young men and women with a cause and a new sense of
purpose. The battle often became not only one of Blacks against Whites,
but generational; a war of younger against the elder. While the movement
didn't then, or even since, erase racial prejudice from American society,
it did become a giant leap towards a better society.
Although the most extreme
and militant youth clamored after the likes of Malcolm X, the mainstream
tended to look to Dr. Martin Luther King for guidance. His non-violent
strategy appealed to a youthful population enamored with the ideals for
peace. More importantly perhaps, his words struck a chord within the
hearts of a congregation that by the nature of youthful idealism; prefers
positive DREAMS to a negative REALITY.
Dr. King voiced that dream
in his most remembered oration which was delivered from the steps of the
Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 23, 1963. His dream
envisioned an American society that believed all men were created equal,
sharing equal opportunity and equal responsibility. In 1963 such hopes
appeared to me nothing short of a daydream. But it resonated with a
generation of Americans unafraid to discard old traditions and explore new
ways of living.
In the year following Dr.
King's famous Dream Speech he was named Time magazines' "Man
of the Year" and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But as
improvements came only slowly, his non-violent approach to change drew
increasing criticism from other Black leaders. Despite all this, the
venerable Dr. King's preeminence as the leading voice of the civil rights
movement was never supplanted, and remains one of the most positive
beacons of guidance ever shed upon our society during the turbulent 60s.
While many of the older
generation resisted the Civil Rights movement on the basis of old and
ingrained prejudices, as the movement grew and its success appeared more
and more imminent, Dr. King became preferable to the more radical among
the younger Black leaders. This was especially true where the Vietnam War
In the early stages, the
veterans who had survived World War II generally supported American
involvement in Vietnam. Black leaders like Carmichael and Malcolm X became
quite vocal in their opposition to the war, and even challenged Dr. King
for his early silence on the subject.
By the mid-sixties however,
the sight of numerous young Americans returning home in black body bags
started to shake American confidence. It also appeared that an unusually
large number of the casualties were Black soldiers. In the end, Dr. King
broke his silence and lost much of his support in conservative White
America because of his growing, and eventually vocal, opposition to the
Until his death by
assassination on April 4, 1968, Reverend King continued to mourn the large
number of dead young Blacks that had fallen on the fields of battle, ten
thousand miles away. The number of African-American casualties was indeed
staggering in comparison to all previous wars, leading many to claim that
Blacks were being committed to combat roles in excess of white soldiers.
The true fact of the matter
was, for the first time in American history, the military had found a
level of true civil rights for all soldiers, sailors and marines
regardless of race. This equality could be seen on two distinct levels:
The number of Black
soldiers serving in the military:
previous wars, resistance to Blacks in military service limited their
numbers to totals far lower than their proportion of the American
population. Even during World War II Black soldiers comprised only about
7% of the military population. During the Vietnam War, though the Negro
population represented only about 10% of American Society, 13.5% of the
young men of service age were Black. Of a truth, the Vietnam War included
a far larger percentage of Black soldiers than any war in prior history.
That was a credit to the growing demand for civil rights, not a negative
to be deplored.
During the Vietnam War
Black soldiers had equal opportunity for combat assignments:
the Vietnam War the ancient myth that Blacks were inferior as soldiers no
longer held as it had in previous wars. For the first time in history
(with some exceptions from the Korean War) Black soldiers were not denied
the opportunity to, as many Blacks had complained in previous wars, fight
to defend their country like any other Americans.
Though reports in the media
in the mid-1960s, as well as the rebuke of civil rights leaders like Malcolm
X propagandized that the war in Vietnam was a "White man's war being
waged by underprivileged young Black soldiers," the truth is far
different. "During the ten-year period of the war, 7,257
African-Americans died in Vietnam, or 12.5 percent of the KIAs (Killed in
Action), slightly under their proportion in the population of draft age
The authors of the
acclaimed book Stolen Valor note: "Blacks were not in Vietnam
because an evil government drafted them out of the ghettos to use as
cannon fodder; they were there because of the courage and patriotism of
young black men, despite the fact they lived in a country where they
frequently experienced racism."[i]
Even as Dr. Martin Luther
King spoke of a dream for a new American society where, "My four
children will…live in a nation where they will not be judged by the
color of their skin but by the content of their character," that
dream was being realized in the one segment of American society against
which he and other leaders spoke out.
In the jungles of Vietnam,
for the first time in military history, soldiers were judged by their
actions and their character, not the color of their skin. For the first
time in any war, Black officers were deemed competent to command White
soldiers. Black pilots flew beside white counterparts, using helicopters
to save the lives of wounded men of all races, or flying the most
intricate of bombers and fighters to defeat the enemy.
In the mess halls, white cooks served meals to Black and White soldiers. In the jungles a white infantryman stood back to back with a Black infantryman as they worked together to hold a common enemy at bay. The exaggerated reports of the media and subsequent sensationalized Vietnam War movies cranked out by Hollywood aside, the true fact of life in Vietnam was that the playing field was leveled for every man. While others at home sought the meaning of equality, the Vietnam War finally defined it. Black, white, red and yellow, every man had equal opportunity to serve, equal opportunity to fight, and equal opportunity to die in the service of his country.
* In the early 1990s a review of these high awards resulted in the upgrade of the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously awarded to Corporal Freddie Stowers to the Medal of Honor. It was presented to his surviving sisters at the White House by President George Bush on April 24, 1991.
** Following the 1991 presentation of the Medal of Honor to Corporal Freddie Stowers for World War I valor, a similar review was made of all high awards to Black servicemen during World War II. The review resulted in upgrades, and on January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Medals of Honor to seven Black heroes for their World War II valor. Only Lieutenant Vernon Baker of the Ninety-second Division survived to personally receive the award.
[i] Burkett, B.G. and Whitley, Glenna. Stolen Valor, Verity Press, Inc., Dallas, Texas. 1998 (p 454)
Consulted for this Chaper:
Robert Elwell, Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973: A Reference
and Pictoral History, Johnson Publishing, Chicago, ILL., 1974
Christian, The Negro as Soldier, Pamphlet published by
Professor George Wm. Cook, Howard University Print, 1895
William Loren. A History of Multicultural America: World War II to
the New Frontier, Raintree Steck-Vaugn Publishers, Austin, Texas,
Taylor, Theodore. The Flight of Jesse LeRoy Brown, Avon Books, 1998
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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