As many observe the birthday of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., I recall that 43 years ago today I was one month shy of joining the U.S. Army.
And then on April 4 of that year, 1968, I was in basic training and out on what you might call a camping trip where we were all in two-man pup tents. The army called it bivouac. My tent partner was a big white boy, and I a not-so-big white boy. He took up enough room for the both of us. In fact, he rolled over and broke the tent pole.
We were not supposed to have personal radios, but someone did. The news came over the air that evening that King had been assassinated. I don’t recall seeing what the immediate reaction was of the black soldiers, of whom we had many in our basic training platoon and company. But it set off new waves of riots in black neighborhoods across the United States, there having been ones well before and after the King assassination.
The black guys in our basic platoon seemed to self-segregate themselves for the most part. And those black guys seemed to take right to the military training, except for one of them. That guy intentionally did things wrong or would not cooperate. All he did was sing a line from a popular soul tune of the time: “sunshine and blue skies go away; I wish it would rain…” Well, he got his wish. I think it rained every day I was at Ft. Lewis.
Eventually he was dropped from the platoon. We saw him later, as we marched by, in another platoon where he reportedly had to start training all over, and sure enough, he was still singing that song — and it was still raining.
You’re probably asking yourself about now: “what does all this have to do with Martin Luther King Jr. really?”
Nothing, maybe. It’s just a remembrance of a white guy who had not been around black people a lot before he joined the army and of the times themselves.
I don’t know if this was before or after the assassination, but one night in basic I served boiler room duty with a black guy. He was not terribly friendly, kind of surly, and he kept making remarks about white people all being prejudiced.
Although no doubt a lot of white racists were in the army at that time, there were also a lot of white guys like me who had not been brought up around many blacks and who had been taught, though, that discrimination and looking down on someone because of the color of one’s skin was wrong (that does not mean no one ever heard or told a racist joke; people of all races do this).
But I think my experience with that guy in the boiler room set the tone for my experience with black people the rest of my one hitch in the army. And that tone was not good.
It seems that all whites were considered guilty for the terrible injustices and even terror and murder inflicted on the black race.
To my way of thinking, they had in pretty good in the army, especially if like me they were in Germany, and faced equal opportunities, except probably in the officer corps at the time. And, to be sure, a lot of them did realize just that and took advantage of it and became career soldiers.
But not everyone, me included, wants to be relegated to being a soldier all of his life, keeping in mind your next tour may well be dodging bullets.
(And this has to be noted: black soldiers represented 12.6 percent of the troops in Vietnam, while representing 11 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, and 12 percent of the troops killed in Vietnam were black, at least according to the statistics I just got off the web. )
And I think what may have been working on some of those black guys I came into contact with or observed in Germany was that once this gig was over they had to go back home to the mean streets. They saw some of the older black career soldiers as Uncle Toms, bending to the ways of the white man. They may have seen some of their own parents as too subservient to whites. And many came from broken homes with little prospects, outside of crime and drugs, once they went back to civilian life.
We had a mini race riot of our own where I was stationed in Germany. A gang of black soldiers beat up a white NCO. No one was punished. Somehow, I think if a white guy had beat up an NCO, black or white, he would have been punished. But with the racial strife of the times, the army was particularly sensitive to charges of racism, so in response sometimes looked the other way — not all the time.
There was another incident in which a bunch of black soldiers stole some weapons. They were allowed to get off scot-free by simply returning them anonymously (but it was known who many or all of the perpetrators were).
These experiences are carried through life by old white guys like me. Some get bitter, some just shake their heads, but it may explain why even today race relations are not always what they should be.
All this was not much about Martin Luther King Jr. So I will say that at least thanks to him a non-violent but ultimately quite successful tactic, non-violence, was injected into the civil rights movement and that is why his birthday is celebrated.
May all races live in harmony.
Another thing I have to appreciate King for was that he was a fairly early opponent of the Vietnam War, considering it both unjust and a waste of money that could be better spent on social programs here at home. (As always, I qualify my criticism of that war, by saying I do not condemn those who served as part of what was felt at the time to be duty to their country or in the case of draftees a legal obligation, as well as a duty.)
My description of black soldiers of the time was of course a generalization (but not an exaggeration) and did not include all of whom I came into contact with or observed.