Black man fights the draft
One problem with most historical accounts of the anti-war movement, or the
peace movement as a whole, is that in most accounts, the contributions, or
even the very presence of black people is virtually omitted or overlooked.
What is your impression of this?
Acknowledging the Essential Links
The problem with African Americans challenging U.S. foreign policy has always been that whites in this society, including white progressives have always challenged us in the sense that we should not link those issues (civil rights and peace). So that when SNCC, which had among its leadership Stokley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and which I was a part of, formally came out against the war, our funding base just went down, and people were very critical of us. But what is significant about the statement by SNCC against the war, if you read it, is that unlike Students for a Democratic Society, or those of many other white progressive groups, the SNCC statement was also a critique of U.S. foreign policy. It criticized not only the war in Vietnam, but it criticized the policies on South Africa, the policies in Latin America, so it went way beyond just the war.
draft resistance there was another mythology about this being just a
"white" issue. First of all, just keep in mind that the people
who fought the war in Vietnam were by-and-large poor people of color, as
well as white working class people. The high school I went to (Thomas
Edison HS in Philadelphia), was, at the time I graduated in 1963, about
60% Black and 40% White. Edison had the highest per capita casualty rate
of any HS in the country, in terms of the war in Vietnam, and Thomas
Edison HS was made up of all very working-class people. But the thing
about opposing the war, is that if you look at the draft resistance, be it
Black or White, there were very few people who actually went to jail. For
the most part, people found other ways out. The first thing that a lot of
Frankly, if they hadn't started drafting white middle-class kids for the war in Vietnam, I'm not so sure how large the anti-war movement would have been. Even in terms of the Gulf War in 1991, a lot of us organized African-American opposition to the war, but the white campuses, by-and-large, were not on fire. Nevertheless, it is not to put white people down that I raise these issues, it is more to elevate the significance of the African-American community. There's a brother who teaches at Tufts University, named Gerald Gill, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on African American opposition to U.S. wars in the 20th century. Invariably what is found is that African-Americans see going into the military as either an employment opportunity, a travel opportunity, and educational opportunity, or something they can't avoid and they don't want to go to jail. But in terms of the military having people with politics, I would argue that the most political people in the military continue to be African-Americans, and that is the group that the military is always the most concerned about.
One Man's Journey
My story is, one, that because of the Civil Rights Movement, and because of the influences of people like Malcolm X, along with some things that were happening in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, I had made up my mind in high school that I didn't want to go into the military even if there hadn't been a war, and clearly I wasn't going to fight anybody. But my intent was to try to avoid the military and jail, because I didn't want to go to jail either. When I got out of high school, I did register for the draft, because I didn't know any better, and then I started college. During my days in college there was no problem, but I went to college for two years and then I dropped out and went down south and joined the Civil Rights Movement. That's when I started being hassled by the government in terms of reporting [to the draft board] to take my physical, and the other stuff that I was supposed to do.
was at that point that I started playing games with the draft board. For
example, I used to write these very long letters on Black History, and
right in the middle of one of these 12 page letters, I would mention a
change of address. Unfortunately, the person who was handling my case was
rather astute, so that didn't work. The draft board would schedule me (to
report), and because I was in the Civil Rights Movement, I could arrange
to be in jail, or in another town at the time that they scheduled me to
report. This went on for a long time, until finally, they sent me a letter
that basically scared me into going in and taking the physical, the other
tests, and I was classified as 1-A. At that point, most of the people
around me in the civil rights movement were around draft-age, so we were
all facing the draft. I started organizing demonstrations at the draft
board in Atlanta, and the people at the draft board got accustomed to
seeing me down there demonstrating.
Objector: During this time, what sort of reaction did you receive from CCCO, or other "traditional" peace organizations?
It was negative, man. Back in those days, I went to CCCO, and talked to a guy, one of the founders of CCCO. I told them that I was a conscientious objector, and they told me that I wasn't. They refused to help me, the Friends Peace Committee, the whole Quaker community, there was no white group that helped me. In fact it was the civil rights movement that became a support mechanism for me. My lawyers, I had very good lawyers, helped me a great deal, the courts were just so stacked against us. In those days, it was very, very hard for a non-Quaker, a Black person who was not a Quaker or a Mennonite to get help. Because my opposition to the war was not a theological opposition, it was a political opposition.
Back in those days they were very hostile toward African-Americans, and really poor people in general. I just shouldn't say African-Americans, because I'm sure that if a white, working-class kid from Kensington would have gone to them, they probably would have done the same thing. I mean, they saw conscientious objection as this precious little group of narrow, upper-middle-class strata, and then they saw people like me as riff-raff, who would dilute conscientious objection. In fact, the opposition to the war in Vietnam clearly changed, and widened the definition of conscientious objection. The kind of work that you, Alex Doty, and people like Harold Jordan of AFSC, are doing today, is rooted in the war in Vietnam. For example , the fact that theology is not the only thing that people have , the fact that you all are willing to help people who are already in the military, those things truly came out of struggle. I should say that, among the Quakers, the people who were the fore-runners of Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS), provided a lot of support for my family while I was in prison. They were able to find some funds for my wife and daughter, which helped to ease the situation. But by then, things were beginning to change, because the civil rights movement was really challenging the white peace community around those kinds of issues.
Objector: What would you say to young people today who are confronted daily with the military's sales pitch?
acknowledge that given the options that a lot of young people see, I can
understand why they choose the military. And I understand that in the same
way that these days there are companies that the prison authorities will
let people work for that if you were free, that company would never hire
you. To that degree, I know that there are so-called opportunities in the
military for young African-Americans, Hispanics, as well as others who
don't have access to resources for education. The thing that people need
to understand is that the way they sell the military, they sell it not as
a military apparatus, but as a post-high school training program, a
post-high school travel program, and I think that if young people would
look at the information regarding bad discharges, if they would look at
the problems of racism in the military, and the reality of them getting
stuck in places like Bosnia, Somalia, or Haiti, or Iraq, that they'd
realize that the military is first, and foremost, a military.
The other thing that you'll find, is that a lot of skills that people learn in the military are not transferable out here. The thing that has shocked me is just how little respect private industry has for the training that people get in the military. I know guys who have worked on jet planes (in the military) for example, and have had very technical kinds of jobs, but then they come out, and employers don't want to hire them because the military isn't very respected in terms of training, by civilian employers. This is definitely something else that young people need to think about with regards to the military.
The thing that hit me personally is now that I see these movies, be it Dead Presidents, or any of these other Vietnam movies, I know that there was no way that I would have done those things. While I may not call myself a pacifist, I am clearly non-violent. The thought of, for example, just killing you because somebody said that you're a bad guy, or over this nonsense with Iraq right now, is just ludicrous. I couldn't have done that. The other thing, is the fact that the people who have been through that, now have to beg for treatment. My brother, who was two years older than me and was in Vietnam, died of Agent Orange at a V.A. hospital. I, personally, spent eight months with him at the V.A. hospital while he was dying. He was dying of Agent Orange, but it looked like he was dying of AIDS. Dying of Agent Orange is just like dying of AIDS. There is also a great deal of psychological trauma of people, like when I was in prison, I was always amazed at how many vets were in jail. People need to understand that they just use up these guys, and throw them out. Now today we're trying to deal with Gulf War Syndrome, and people shouldn't have to hire lawyers and go to court about this stuff.
Objector: What responsibility do white organizers who are doing counter-military work, and their organizations, have to communities of color, and how can they be supportive of the work that organizers of color are doing?
of all, for a white person to go into a black community where the
unemployment rate is high, where the schools are bad, and it's hard for
students to get sufficient scores on the SATs that enable them to get into
college, it's hard for a black person in this situation to even hear it
coming from a white person. So clearly, these groups have to be willing to
hire people of color to go into those communities.
Committee for Conscientious Objectors
Refusing to kill