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The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement

The coincidence of the Civil Rights movement with the Vietnamese war helped to radicalise African American servicemen both in Vietnam and on their return. In this article, Brendan Gallagher considers how the two events are inextricably bound up.

Posted 20-Feb-2014

by Brendan Gallagher

Defending democracy abroad
The struggle for civil rights
Black soldiers and the draft
Black Panthers in the army
The Civil Rights Acts

When the Vietnam War escalated and was wholeheartedly backed by the White House, President Johnson failed to realise the racial nightmare that American involvement in Vietnam would create. Vietnam coincided with the protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power during 1960s America. Whilst African-Americans were discriminated at home but also within the U.S. armed forces, the effects of black power, the impact of the Civil Rights struggle and “the resurgence of black sub-cultural style, expressed through dress, language and gesture”[i], had been transferred to the war zone.

Amidst increasing tension, black soldiers embraced Black Power: culturally and politically. Vietnam was America’s first racially integrated conflict. Black soldiers had fought in all of America’s previous military encounters, but in segregated units. However, a small number of segregated units still existed, and “an officerless and forgotten platoon of anxious black G.I.s despairingly shooting into the darkness…in the last American outpost on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia”[ii] was movingly portrayed in the film Apocalypse Now.

One million African-Americans had served in the Second World War and returned home imbued with the desire to possess the full rights of citizenship so long denied them. In previous wars also, African-Americans had fought not only for their emancipation but also for their firm belief in democracy. When black servicemen returned victorious after having defeated Hitler and the threat of fascism in Europe, in 1945, they soon realised that they were still denied basic human rights. Protest groups were formed such as the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). Subsequently, demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts pressurised the authorities to integrate schools and public buildings.

Defending democracy abroad

Vietnam was a war against communism: it was a war waged to promote liberal democracy instead of an imposed dictatorship. Again, black Americans consequently trusted that if they defended democracy abroad they were more likely to receive it at home. They recalled the words of the legendary leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, W.E.B. Du Bois, when he advised during the beginning of World War 1,

“Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks        shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens…fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly.”[iii]

These words in turn echoed the sentiment of former slave and early African-American leader Frederick Douglas when describing the fundamental requirements and rights of American patriotism and therefore citizenship:

“..for once let the Black man get up in his person the brass letters, U.S; let him get an eagle upon his button…bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth…which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”[iv]

Nevertheless, legislation still segregated blacks in schools, in employment and socially. Accordingly, Schaller depicts the situation:

“The U.S. was fighting enemies who proclaimed the right to enslave or exterminate inferior races. Presumably, American citizens were united in detesting such hateful ideologies. Yet American minorities at home still faced discrimination and abuse.” [v]

Before 1960, racial animosity had been negligible: black soldiers were professional and seeking a career. Moreover, for some Black soldiers, Vietnam provided an opportunity for escape from poor economic and social conditions at home "I thought the only way I could make it out of the ghetto, was to be the best soldier I possibly could”. [vi]After years of discrimination, they viewed fighting in the war as an opportunity to prove their worth to their country.

Nevertheless, as a result of greater awareness of black struggle and identity, publicised by media and widened television coverage, Vietnam became the “black man’s” true subject. [vii]

The struggle for civil rights

The national March on Washington in 1963, in which over 200,000 blacks and whites participated, amidst widespread media coverage, represented one of the most powerful protests in American history. Symbolically standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King called for black Americans to be included in the American Dream.

His dream was that American Negroes be fully accepted and integrated into American society: that “little black boys” and “little white boys”[viii] soon would be able to go to school together. Subsequently, in1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, bringing de Jure, or legal discrimination to a close; and, effectively barring discrimination in public places and employment.

In 1965, as part of a voter registration drive in Alabama, a third protest march from Selma to Montgomery took place after the two previous attempts were crushed by hostile local law officers using excessive violence. Under heavy government protection, and even heavier international news coverage, the marchers arrived in Montgomery on March 25. Consequently, the Voting Rights Act was soon passed, allowing African-Americans in the Southern states to register as voters.[ix] The Civil Rights Movement then, had made considerable gains for African-American civil rights by 1965; however, there were dissenting voices arguing that blacks had still achieved little economic justice. King himself warned: “millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies.”[x]

As President Lyndon Johnson increased the focus of American foreign policy on the conflict in Vietnam, statistics soon presented stark evidence of racial discrimination. In 1965 there were 23,000 U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. By the end of 1967, the number rose dramatically to 465,000 – the result of Project 100,000,[xi] initiated by President Johnson in 1966. Qualification standards were lowered meaning that black Americans who had previously evaded the draft owing to poor education opportunities, were now eligible and so too, ironically, were racially intolerant, poor white men from the Southern States.[xii] 246,000 men were recruited between October 1966 and June 1969 – 41% were black, although black Americans represented only 11% of the U.S. population. 58,000 lost their lives in the conflict, 22% of whom were black. Less than 3% of the officers in the Army were black, less than 1% in the Marines.[xiii]

Black soldiers and the draft

Draft boards themselves were, by their very nature, divisive and discriminatory: in 1967 no black Americans were present on the boards in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Jack Helms, a member of the Louisiana draft board, was a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. He described the long established National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People black civil rights group, as “a communist-inspired, anti-Christ, sex-perverted group of tennis short beatniks.”[xiv]

Soon rumours abounded that the U.S. government were using the Vietnam War as a form of genocide. Money was being pumped into Vietnam instead of poor black communities in America. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver noted the contradictory situation, and complained: “black Americans are asked to die for the system in Vietnam, in Watts (a poor black suburb of Los Angeles) they are asked to die by it.”[xv]

Lance Corporal William L. Harvey also voiced his concern to a Washington Post reporter: “Vietnam is a white man’s war. Black men should not go, only to return and fight whites at home.”[xvi]

Black soldiers began to identify with the enemy: they saw the Vietnamese as, like themselves, victims of white colonial racist aggression. They were encouraged by anti-war demonstrations at home. White and black students, representing the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, regularly organised marches and disruptive sit-ins. Boxer, Muhammad Ali dared to speak out: “ I ain`t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.” and declared: “They want me to go to Vietnam to shoot some black folks that never lynched me. Never called me nigger, never assassinated my leaders.”[xvii] His subsequent refusal to enlist as a serviceman led to a harsh rebuke from the American Government: he was subsequently fined and sentenced to prison- effectively stripping him of his World title.

Martin Luther King voiced his concerns and charged the U.S. Government with being “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today ” [xviii], and urged dissenting blacks to seek the status of conscientious objectors (as indeed Ali had done). Furthermore, other groups uttered their discontent and disillusionment. “We recoil with horror,” said an S.N.C.C position paper in 1965, “at the inconsistency of a supposedly free society where responsibility to freedom is equated with the responsibility to lend oneself to military aggression.” [xix] Outrage over the war, and over the “disproportionate number”[xx] of young black men being drafted to fight it, contributed significantly to S.N.C.C’s embrace of Black Power.

After Martin Luther King’s assassination white soldiers applauded his murder. Racist graffiti, cross burnings and Ku Klux Klan material were tolerated on some bases. [xxi] Young African-American recruits were confronted with the symbol most associated with historical racist oppression, the Confederate flag, daubed on army machinery including tanks, jeeps and even helicopters. [xxii] Magazines such as Ebony or Jet were not stocked on some bases and neither were tapes of soul music or books on black American culture and history.[xxiii] Black servicemen were frequently sentenced to longer terms than their white counterparts, and once inside prison, Muslim inmates were refused copies of the Koran.[xxiv] Influenced by the Nation of Islam’s Malcolm X and later by Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers, black soldiers embraced their African cultural roots by wearing black beads and black gloves and flew the Black flag.[xxv] A ritualised handshake, the “dap”, was common amongst black personnel.[xxvi] Black Power salutes were also used in private between black privates and officers. Despite or because of segregated bars and clubs, solidarity increased between black soldiers. Several groups were formed: Blacks in Action, The Unsatisfied Black Soldier, The Ju Jus, and The Mau Maus. [xxvii] - they discussed black history, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power and soul music.

Black Panthers in the army

The racial tensions in the ghettoes of Detroit and Chicago were now echoed in the armed forces. In July 1969, there was a race riot in Lejeune Marine Camp in North Carolina.[xxviii] Soon, the battlefield became a stage of conflict within the U.S ranks. Rebellion and mutiny amongst black soldiers began to occur. Also, in 1970, seven black soldiers from the 176th Regiment disobeyed orders to go on patrol duty, claiming their lives were being “deliberately endangered by racist officers”[xxix]

Inter-racial clashes were commonplace in military prisons, army bases and even on aircraft carriers. In October, 1972, a fight involving black and white sailors aboard the attack aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, in the Tonkin Gulf, left 33 men injured[xxx].

Groups such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, encouraged violence against white racism at home and in Vietnam. Kathleen Cleaver the wife of Eldridge Cleaver

(leader of the Panthers), urged black soldiers: “Right inside of the U.S. imperialist beast’s army, you are strategically placed to begin the process of destroying him from within.” [xxxi] Meanwhile, the Party’s Manifesto promised a programme of social transformation contradicting Johnson’s  The Great Society programme of greater public expenditure for welfare, schools, housing and cultural works such as libraries and theatres (which had largely been curtailed due to the spiralling costs of the war in Vietnam). The Marxist rhetoric of the Panthers demanded and pledged the following requirements for black justice and equality in, what they perceived to be a white dominated society of prejudice, hypocrisy and double standards:

“Full employment for our people

An end to the robbery by the white man of our black community;

Payment in currency as restitution for slave labour and mass murder of black people

Decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings

Education for our people that exposes decadent American society

Exemption of black men from military service for a racist government

An end to police brutality and murder of black people by organizing

Armed self-defense groups

Freedom for all black prisoners because they haven’t had a fair impartial trial

Black defendants should be tried by a jury of their peers

Land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace

A United Nations plebiscite in the black colony to determine the will of black people as to their national destiny”[xxxii]

Black students were moved by the separatist ideology of the Panthers. Consequently, a black student uprising took place at Cornell University, in December 1968. Armed agitators had taken over an administration building and their continued protests resulted in the resignation of several distinguished scholars- and eventually Cornell’s President.[xxxiii] Indeed, it had been a year of turmoil for the U.S: the Tet Offensive had proved disastrous for the Vietnam campaign; in April, Eldridge Cleaver was involved in a shoot-out in Oakland between Black Panthers and police that left one Panther dead and Cleaver and two police officers wounded[xxxiv]; and Democrat Bobby Kennedy (who had promised better civil rights for blacks and had promised an early end to the war) had been assassinated- as had Luther King. 

Recruitment with regard to Black protest organisations was identified by the journalist Michael Herr in his personal account of his time in Vietnam, Dispatches, :“…there were more than a dozen Black Panthers in one platoon, one of which was an agent for the panthers, sent over…to recruit”[xxxv] In addition, a survey produced by Time Magazine illustrated the influence of Black Power; and the growing racial problems and conflicts in Vietnam and at home. Personal interviews were conducted with 400 black enlisted men “from Con Thiem to the Delta” providing a measure of the attitude of black men in Vietnam:

·        45% said they would use arms to gain their rights when they return to “the world.” A few boasted that they are smuggling automatic weapons back to the States.

·        60% agreed that black people should not fight in Vietnam because they have problems back home. Only 23% replied that blacks should fight in Vietnam the same as whites.

·        64% believed that racial troubles in Vietnam were getting worse. Only 6% thought that racial relations were improving. “Just like civilian life,” one black marine said. “The white doesn’t want to see the black get ahead.”

·        56% said that they use the Black Power salute. Only 1% condemned its use

·        55% preferred to eat their meals with blacks. 52% preferred to live in all-black barracks.

·        41% said they would join a riot when they returned to the U.S. However, a nearly equal number, 40%, said they would not.[xxxvi]

Evidently though, the most unsettling and worrying issue was that black soldiers were dying in greater numbers proportionately, to whites, naturally leading to an increase in discord amongst the black ranks. One black private protested forcefully against the unfair conditions:

“You should see for yourself how the black man is being treated over here and    the way we are dying. When it comes to rank, we are left out. When it comes to special privileges, we are left out. When it comes to patrols, operations and so forth, we are first.”[xxxvii]

Propaganda was used by the Vietcong to undermine the black soldiers’ morale: leaflets were dropped describing American army racism and also images depicting U.S. policemen beating black civil rights workers. The Vietnamese would often call out “ Go home soul man!” [xxxviii] to black soldiers on the battleground, shooting only at the white soldiers.

Soon, a back street in downtown Saigon known as Soul Alley became home for “somewhere between 300 and 500 black AWOLS and deserters”. Soul Alley provided an ideal escape from the restraints of army life and conditions. One explained the attractions of the surroundings to a Time reporter:

“You get up late, you smoke a few joints, you get on your Honda and ride around to the PX, buy a few items you can sell on the black market, come back, blow some more grass, and that’s it for one day.”[xxxix]

The Civil Rights Acts

The Civil Rights Acts at home, in America, resulting in better employment and housing conditions for African-Americans put pressure on the forces to respond to the increasing crisis. General Chapman admitted in 1969, “we’ve got a problem.” [xl] Investigations on discrimination and prejudices were addressed in all areas, from the lack of suitable provisions for black servicemen to the small number of black officers.

Mandatory Watch and Action Committees were introduced into each unit, using the slogan – “Racism can cost you your career.” [xli] Eventually, African-Americans won the right to grow their hair in Afros; and gradually racial tensions within the ranks began to subside.

Colin Powell began his military career in Vietnam, rising through the ranks to become General. Indeed, since Vietnam many African-Americans have been promoted to the highest ranks of the U.S Army.[xlii] Therefore, a positive legacy was left for the new generation of black servicemen, but at a cost: 40% of black veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress, compared with 20% of white veterans. [xliii]

African-Americans also suffered after returning from combat when faced with unforgiving working conditions, particularly in the North. Manufacturing firms were relocating southward because of cheaper land, lower taxes, and lower union membership. Moreover, “the existence of the right to work laws allowed by section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act, plus the social conservatism of the region”[xliv] meant that black labour effectively became marginalized. Transportation, particularly in the South-Northern Mississippi, was cheaper and energy supplies necessarily, were closer:

“manufacturing firms are favoring the white South-Northern Mississippi, the white hill country and north-western Arkansas. They are not locating in the black Delta towns. There are a number of reasons for this new form of racial discrimination… Relocating manufacturers find the hill country white workers are free thinkers who reject unions, while black workers seek the protection of unions. With white labor, there is neither a union problem nor a racial problem.”[xlv]


Participation in the Vietnam War without doubt heightened black consciousness, and help politicise every black American as a result of their being made “clearly aware of the paradox of fighting for democracy abroad when they did not have it at home.” [xlvi]

The growing prosperity of whites, whilst African-Americans continued to be sidelined- displaced and alienated thus remaining on the periphery and margins of American society- emphasised the confusion of, what Du Bois termed “double-consciousness”[xlvii]: that sense of being American citizens but also having an African past.

Unfortunately racism still exists in America today and blacks continue to suffer from discrimination in the armed forces and in society as a whole. Although the economic conditions of U.S blacks have improved, the large gap between blacks and whites has remained, and has led to racial tensions that have yet to be resolved. There are still high rates of failure for black pupils at schools and colleges, high rates of unemployment, and high rates of crime committed by African-Americans. Nevertheless, the struggle for Civil Rights at home, and on the battlefields and jungles of Vietnam, underlined a new consciousness typified by Black Power. A radical change had occurred: Vietnam helped imbue African-Americans with a fresh philosophy for freedom. They now shared a common identity provoked by awareness of their own alienation: “The immediate cause for racial problems here,” explained Navy Lieutenant Owen Heggs, the only black attorney in I Corps, “is black people themselves. White people haven’t changed. What has changed is the black population.”[xlviii] Now, soldiers shared a common response to the injustice their race had suffered:

“When an American force stormed ashore south of Danang this summer, young blacks wore amulets around their necks symbolizing black pride, culture and self-defense. They raised their fists to their brothers as they moved side by side with white marines against their common Communist enemy.”[xlix]


Bishop C. Vietnam War Diary: 1964-1975. (Italy: Aerospace, 2003).

Blair T. Retreat to the Ghetto. ( New York: Hill and Wang, 1978)

Blum J. Years of Discord: American Politics and Society, 1961-1974. (U.S.A: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1992).

Cawthorne N. Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. (Denmark: Arcturus, 2003).

Du Bois W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. (1903; U.S.A: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994).

Foner E. The Story of America Freedom. (1998; G.B: Mackays of Chatham plc., 2000).

Herr M. Dispatches. (London: Picador, 1998).

Lee M. Dictionary of North American History. (G.B: Larousse, 1994).

Louvre A. and Walsh J. Tell Me Lies About Vietnam. (G.B: Open University Press, 1988).    

Quart L. and Auster A. American Film and Society since 1945. (U.S.A: Praeger, 1994).

 Palmer M. “Seconds Out”, The Times Magazine, 29/12/2001.

Ralston I. American Studies Today. (U.K: American Studies Resources Centre, Liverpool John Moores University, 2003).

Schaller M., Scharff V., Schulzinger R. Present Tense. (U.S.A: Houghton Mifflin Company, Inc., 1996).

Sternlieb G., and Hughes J. Post Industrial America: Metropolitan Decline and Inter-Regional Job Shifts. (New Brunswick: Centre for Urban Policy Research, 1976).

Woodiwiss A. Postmodernity U.S.A: The Crisis of Social Modernism in Postwar America, (G.B: Cromwell Press Ltd, 1993).

Maycock J. War Within War, http: // /0,4273,4256062,00.html, (15/9/2001), 11/6/2004.

Woodland J. “How did Participation in America`s Wars affect Black Americans?”,,(18/11/2001), 10/12/2004

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (CD-ROM). U.K: 2001.


[i] Ibid: 21.

[ii] L. Quart and A. Auster, American Film and Society Since 1945, (U.S.A: Praeger, 1994): 132

[iii] R.W Mullen, Blacks in America`s Wars, (New York: Monad Press, 1974): 22, in J.Woodland, “How did Participation in America`s Wars affect Black Americans?”,,p6, 18/11/2001     10/12/2004.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] M. Schaller, Present Tense, (U.S.A: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996): 32.

[vi] A. E Woodley Jr, in W. Terry. (no date). Bloods, [internet]. Vietnam.htm[18/11/1991], in J. Woodland, op cit: 6.

[vii] A. Louvre, op. cit: 21.

[viii] “Martin Luther King” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (CD-ROM). 2001.

[ix] M Lee, Dictionary of North American History, (G.B: Larousse, 1994): 59.

[x] Encyclopaedia Britannica, op cit.

[xi] J. Maycock, “War Within War”,, p2, 15/9/2001     11/6/04

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid 

[xvi]“ Blacks Against the War”, The Washington Post, U.S, page and editor unknown, in C. Bishop,Vietnam War Diary:1964-1975, (Italy: Aerospace, 2003): 147

[xvii] M. Palmer, “Seconds Out”, The Times Magazine: 16

[xviii] J. Maycock, op. cit, p3

[xix] E. Foner, The Story of American Freedom, (1998; G.B: Mackays of Chatham plc., 2000): 291

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] J. Maycock, op. cit, p2

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] Ibid

[xxv] Ibid

[xxvi] Ibid

[xxvii] Ibid: 3

[xxviii] N. Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, (Denmark: Arcturus, 2003): 170

[xxix] J. Starr, “Who Fought For the U.S”, Lessons of the Vietnam War, in Centre for Social Studies Education publication, (1988, place unknown): 14,  in J. Boyle, “The U.S at War”, in American Studies Today, Ian Ralston, (2003; U.K: Liverpool John Moores University): 15

[xxx]“33 Hurt in Racial Clash Aboard Carrier Kitty Hawk”, Stars and Stripes, U.S; October 1972, editor and page unknown, in C. Bishop, op cit: 237.

[xxxi] J. Maycock, op. cit: 2

[xxxii] T. Blair, Retreat to the Ghetto, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978): 90.

[xxxiii] J. Blum, Years of Discord: American Politics and Society, 1961-1974, (U.S.A: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1992): 360.

[xxxiv] “Eldridge Cleaver” in CD-ROM, Encyclopaedia Britannica, U.K, (2001)

[xxxv] M. Herr, Dispatches, (London; Picador, 1988): 147

[xxxvi]“ Black Power Affirmed”, Time, December, 1969, U.S. (page and editor unknown), in C. Bishop op cit: 165

[xxxvii] J. Maycock, op cit: 4

[xxxviii] Ibid: 6

[xxxix] “Soul Alley”, Time, U.S, editor and page unknown, in C. Bishop, op cit: 189.

[xl] J. Maycock, op. cit: 7

[xli] Ibid

[xlii] N. Cawthorne, op cit: 171

[xliii] J. Maycock, op cit: 7

[xliv] A. Woodiwiss, Postmodernity U.S.A: The Crisis of Social Modernism in Postwar America, (G.B; Cromwell Press Ltd., 1993.): 93.

[xlv] G. Sternlieb, Post Industrial America: Metropolitan Decline and Inter-Regional Job Shifts, (New Brunswick: Centre for Urban Policy Research, 1976): 157-158.

[xlvi] J. Woodland, “How did Participation in America`s Wars affect Black Americans?”,,p6, 18/11/2001

[xlvii] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (1903; U.S.A: Dover Publications Inc., 1994): 2

[xlviii]“ Black Power in Vietnam”, in Time Magazine, U.S, December, 1969, (editor and page unknown), in C. Bishop, op cit: 164.

[xlix] Ibid: 164.

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