Blacks and Anti-War Activism In each one of this nation's wars, blacks have joined the fight. But ever since the American Revolution, some African Americans have stood against fighting for this nation, with questions about what loyalty would bring them. We continue our series with a look at anti-war activism.
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Blacks and Anti-War Activism

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Blacks and Anti-War Activism

Blacks and Anti-War Activism

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

In each one of these nation's wars, blacks have joined the fight. But ever since the American Revolution, some African-Americans have stood against fighting for this nation. Some of them had specific questions about what loyalty would bring them.

Take the Revolutionary War. Some enslaved blacks fought for the British who promised freedom instead of the colonial revolutionaries who did not. There are pacifists and people who questioned American empire building and those who don't think blacks should fight and die for a nation that has treated them so poorly.

Today, as we continue our series on African-Americans in the military, we look at anti-war activism.

In a moment, we'll talk with a military historian and a black activist opposed to the Iraq war.

But first, Robert Moses, he's now known as a pioneer in math education for black youth. But in 1965, he was a civil rights worker with a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. Moses was eligible for the draft. He'd started working with a group of white activists who were organizing against the emerging war in Vietnam.

Mr. ROBERT MOSES (Military Historian; Former Civil Rights Worker, Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee): I joined them and we organized something we called a congress of unrepresented people. We got a couple of busloads of the people we were working with in Mississippi, sharecroppers and day laborers, to come up. And we sat on the lawn there in Washington and had a little demonstration march.

And we're - some of us were arrested and spent a few days in jail. And after that, in the fall of '65, I spent some time moving around the country trying to talk to people, particularly, people who had come down to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer, around issues dealing with the war. And then in the summer of '66, I got a notice to report, and I left the country.

CHIDEYA: Well, what - before you left the country and you got that notice, you had choices, you could report, you could go to jail or you could flee the country? Why did you make the decision that you made?

Mr. MOSES: I guess I didn't want to follow the country at that point. I didn't want to follow the country into the Army and fight. I didn't want to follow the country into jail, you know, and spend time in jail. I didn't want to get involved, really, in all consuming way in the country's issues dealing with the war. I thought it was a major distraction from the work that we were doing around the issues dealing with black people in this country and the struggle for their rights, right. And so…

CHIDEYA: But, Bob, it seems almost, in some ways, that you're saying that you didn't want to get involved, but you were already deeply involved. And you made a specific choice. But don't you feel, like, you already - no matter what you did, were involved - even once you left the country, in a deeply personal way with this country America?

Mr. MOSES: Yes. And I learned that there's no place you can go on the planet where you can disengage from this country. And once you've got engaged in a way we were, where we found that out in Tanzania, where we ended up.

But what I think was important for me looking back was that the disengagement from the actual struggle in this country that happened around the war gave me a really critical breathing space to establish a family. But also, at the same time, get some real interface with Africa and with Tanzania and understanding in a different way the issues that we were facing in this country…

CHIDEYA: Let me just back up a little bit. Did you feel that although you were involved with anti-war activism that there was a race gap, even when you brought up sharecroppers to deal with this issue? How did you reconcile the fact…

Mr. MOSES: Actually, at that meeting, black - it was the beginning of, you know, black consciousness, face(ph) the black power, so the people came up and met separately. And that was my first confrontation because there were people there who didn't think that the black people who were at that meeting should meet separately. They wanted to - and I thought I defended their right to. So it was very much there.

CHIDEYA: So when you say meet separately, was that initiated by African-Americans saying, we want our own space to talk from our own perspective?

Mr. MOSES: That's right. Exactly. Because - yeah, Bill Strickland came down from the Northern Student Movement with a busload of people. He wanted to meet with the people from Mississippi. He came expressly because that's what he wanted to do. So all those thing were already, you know, percolating.

CHIDEYA: From that experience, do you think that there was a different lens that black Americans who were thinking about the war brought to the issue? I mean, for example, there were such a disproportionate number of black men being sent to Vietnam and it was doing a certain thing to black neighborhoods in terms of taking all the young men out that was not as profound. It was still happening in white America, but it wasn't happening to us, a higher proportionate people. Was there a different lens that the black activists brought to looking at this issue than the white activists brought?

Mr. MOSES: Well, there were many - they would - there were not just one. There were several different lenses. There were people that said, we should go to jail. We shouldn't go and fight. We should (unintelligible) a fight here, right?

And certainly, my own position, I think, of my own life as a life in struggle here in this country, in the gap between the ideals that professes and the conduct that condones that, that is the central struggle of my life, and that's where its focus should be, right? And I shouldn't be dragged into all of its external wars - that it's, you know, engaged in over the course of my life. The struggle here is, somehow, to see whether or not this democracy that it's being preached abroad can actually resonate here for all of the people here. So that's one lens.

But then, there were some other lenses of people who actually went into the Army and were trying to organize within the Army, you know? So there were - it was - there were a lot of lenses out there.

CHIDEYA: That was Robert Moses. He returned to the United States in the mid-1970s and was later pardoned by President Jimmy Carter. Moses went on to receive the McArthur Fellowship for a method he developed to teach algebra to kids.

And now, we're going to take a look at the black anti-war sentiment past and present. Marcus Cox teaches military history at the Citadel, the Military College at South Carolina. And Jerry Quickly is an independent journalist and anti-war activist based in Los Angeles.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. JERRY QUICKLY (Journalist; Anti-war Activist): Hello, thanks.

Professor MARCUS COX (History, Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, Citadel University): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Marcus, let's start with you as a historian. You've just heard my conversation with Robert Moses. He was already an activist dealing with civil rights when Vietnam started. How would you characterize him? Would you consider him an anti-war activist? He did leave the country.

Prof. COX: Yeah, I guess, I would consider him an anti-war activist. But I also listened to him and I think that he shared, I guess, a lot of sentiments that many African-Americans did at that particular time. And like he pointed out, many individuals took different avenues. Some individuals decided to flee the country. Some decided to get very involved in demonstrations and protests. And then you have a contingent of African-Americans who went into the military and agitated and were very active in the ranks in trying to better the state of African-Americans in the military.

So it was a very active movement, and one that unfortunately is not really focused upon, you know, very much. But it's somewhat complex in that you're not going to be able to define one central reason why people were against the war or one central avenue that they took.

CHIDEYA: Marcus, when you - you're a historian. When you look at African-Americans and the military and an opposition to military action, especially war, what have you seen over the course of history? Is there - are there any trends that we can see?

Prof. COX: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, when you look as early as the revolutionary period, and you have African-Americans who were contemplating whether they should support the British or support the American colonists. What's at stake is how am I going to better my situation or how am I going to advance my goals?

And what happens is if you look throughout American history, African-Americans, and in particular minorities, have always questioned themselves in relation to this whole issue, because if, in fact, I can better myself in some way, then it's a worthwhile endeavor. But if not, if my situation is not going to change by virtue of my sacrifice or my commitment, then how am I going to gain from this experience? And so you're going to find that throughout, you know, our(ph) American history.

CHIDEYA: Jerry, you had a very different experience. You went to Iraq, but not as a soldier. Tell us why you went, what your perspective was.

Mr. QUICKLY: Well, I went primarily because I believe that the story of empire should not be told exclusively through the methodology emplaced by corporate media. And I believe that there are much, much broader and more detailed than nuanced stories that needed to be told. And the only way to do that was to actually go there and record those stories.

CHIDEYA: Tell us - when it comes to Iraq, how would you compare the way that you've seen African-Americans feeling about the war now to the way that perhaps some members in the African-American neighborhoods felt about the possible conflict when it hadn't really kicked-off, but it was a possibility after 9/11.

Mr. QUICKLY: Well, it was very clear from the onset of the Bush administration saber rattling around Iraq until when the war started through present, that there was virtually no support for the war then in the black community.

One of the reasons I certainly believe is because of the draft that's currently in place. Some people say there's a draft, but there most assuredly is. It's a poverty draft. The young folks going into the military even prior to the conflict, let alone now, their choices when they get out of high school are generally not a great six-figured job at Microsoft or the Army.

Their choices tend to be either McDonalds or in some cases, potentially, illegal or off-the-books activities, war, poverty. You know, that there's - or the Army. There's not a lot of great choices. And the fact that there's such an absence of virtual - virtually, there are no children of America's privileged class serving the armed forces. And that speaks volumes and that's also not a lost on black communities in America.

CHIDEYA: Jerry, what about Washington? And here, I'm not talking about the administration. But very few members, for example, of the Congressional Black Caucus have joined together with anti-war activists have made that essential part of their governance. Are you surprised by that?

Mr. QUICKLY: No, not at all. I think there is a massive disconnect of -disconnect between the Congressional Black Caucus and the constituencies that they serve. It is strong and pronounced the disconnect between the American people in Congress. If you look in poll after poll, Congress, generally, gets an approval rating of around 12 to 15 percent from American people. But if you ask those same people what they think about their local representative, like, hey, John is great. He does a good job, or Sali(ph) is awesome. And that same dynamic is in place among black communities where they're really - you know, we're not really expecting much from (unintelligible) representatives.

However, if queried about a specific representative that represents you, there probably is some level of goodwill. And in the end, the Black Congressional Caucus has done little to nothing to have an impact on this war and I won't put that just exclusively on their shoulders. It's really reflective of what I would frankly call the absolutely spineless behavior of the Democratic Party.

CHIDEYA: Marcus, let me turn back to you. You were framing some of these issues of participation in terms of how African-Americans saw the opportunity to move up in American society. But one of the things that has happened during this war is that you have people who are non-citizens fighting.

How does the whole question of citizenship and - I mean, on a very literal level as well as this metaphorical level of how invested you are in American society play into how the armed forces is operating now?

Prof. COX: Well, I think, you know, ever since that the early 1970s when the military switched from - I guess, the institutional model, it moves from to an occupational model. Let me explain that for a second. Prior to that particular point, many people served because, obviously, you will draft it or conscript it, or many people have joined and a lot of that had to lot to do with patriotic reasons. But when the military switched over to an all-volunteer force, it became an occupational model, meaning that the military would induce people to join by virtue of salary, opportunities to advance themselves educationally.

And so, like my counterpart pointed it out that you're going to have a working class and sort of poor individuals who are going to - sort of be attracted to the military and service. And what you're going to find is, today, that although, I believe that you still have a large number of individuals who are supporting the military or joining the military, what you're going to find is many individuals are not necessarily doing it for patriotic reasons. And it's interesting.

Because I remember back in the 1990s, when the Persian Gulf War started, and I had just gotten out of college. And I've had a lot of friends in mind who were in ROTC at Southern University in Baton Rouge. And many of them weren't too please about the prospect of going to fight even though they were in ROTC, and they had signed up to serve in the military. In their minds, they were there for the benefits, for the opportunities.

CHIDEYA: Let me get Jerry in here very quickly. There are so many issues that people in, primarily, African-American neighborhoods face. Is this war just too abstract compared to crime, compared to the crumbling schools?

Mr. QUICKLY: I think that the abstraction, it tends to be just, as you described, I think, quite accurately, either an abstraction or it tends to be focused all too closely and all too sharply. And the dynamic there is whether or not you have a family member that's involved in the war. Because the level of horror, grief, the genocidal behavior that's being inflicted with over millions Iraqis dead, people fleeing the country in record numbers.

What's going on in Iraq, in many ways, many of those same things have been visited in - at varying levels of intensity on black communities for years. And certainly, when you have a family member that's there that has been affected by it or, in some cases, that has been injured or killed, it brings it home that much closer and also re-reminds black families of what we have lost and what we have endured in the legacies of our families in this country.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I'm going to have let you gentlemen go. I know people will have questions about the number of Iraqi dead. We'll post some of that issue on our Web site.

Marcus and Jerry, thank you so much.

Prof. COX: Thanks.

Mr. QUICKLY: Thanks very much.

CHIDEYA: Jerry Quickly is an independent journalist and anti-war activist. He also hosts a radio show, "Beneath the Surface" on the Los Angeles-based Pacifica station, KPSK. His forthcoming book looks at African-American anti-war activism and the war in Iraq. It's called "B-Boy in Baghdad." And Marcus Cox is associate professor of history and assistant dean of humanities and social sciences at the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.

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