Martin Luther King, Jr. will be honored as one of the fathers of the civil rights movement on Monday. Many will focus on Selma or the Montgomery bus boycott, and not his opposition to the Vietnam War, as they celebrate his legacy. But for him, it was all part of the same battle.
Milton McIntyre sat in a room at the ACES Museum in Philadelphia before the holiday, surrounded by vintage wartime memorabilia that commemorated the service of black soldiers. When he talked about the friends he lost in Vietnam, his voice cracked and his eyes welled with tears. The 79-year-old remembered a time when human rights were being challenged both abroad and at home.
Asked about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s unpopular view opposing the Vietnam War, he said that when King branched out beyond civil rights to address other movements, he believed that placed a target on King’s back that led to his assassination.
“I think he was becoming more and more aware that the problem was more than that of a civil issue,” McIntyre said. “It was sort of a global issue. The wars that they were sending us off to were being fought against people who looked like us.”
Near the end of King's life, the civil rights leader drew connections between inequality and factors other than race, like economics. He noticed how poor Americans, many of whom were minorities, were disproportionately affected by the Vietnam War.
Nearly 50 years ago, on April 4, 1967, 3,000 people gathered at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan to hear King speak at a Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam event. His words would go down in history as some of his most powerful when he decried the government throwing resources into the Vietnam War while ignoring poverty at home.
“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” King said. “And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
The now acclaimed 1967 speech was one of many times King spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam, both publicly and privately. Harvey Cox, a former professor at Harvard Divinity School and a friend of King’s, remembered when at a meeting of the board of advisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King suggested that he might take a page from Mahatma Gandhi’s book and fast to protest the bombings in North Vietnam.
“He was thinking of fasting until they stopped the bombing, which might have meant a long time,” Cox said.
Even many of King's allies did not support a shift in priority from civil rights to the peace movement, and could not appreciate their nexus. Lyndon B. Johnson was distraught over King's opposition to a war he was determined to win, and the media criticized King for merging domestic and international matters.
“There are no simple or easy answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country," wrote the editors of The New York Times. "Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.”
But American intervention in Vietnam was a civil rights issue. Between October 1966 and June 1969, 41 percent of draftees were black, though only 11 percent of Americans were of African descent. Twenty-two percent of the 58,000 soldiers who died over the course of the war were African American.
At the then predominately black Edison High School in Philadelphia, 54 alumni died in Vietnam, the highest casualty rate nationwide at a high school. Reverend Sharon McClan was a teenager then, and she remembered how shocked everyone was as Edison students returned in body bags, including her friends’ older brothers.
“It really hit me really strong because… some of the brothers I knew,” she said. “And then (in) ’70 and ’71, they were dead. And that’s when I said, ‘Boy, this is a war.’ They were calling it a conflict. I said, ‘This is no conflict. It’s a war. It’s a war. People are dying.'”
When Cox traveled to Europe as part of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam to visit soldiers who had gone AWOL, he met a 19-year-old black man who had chosen exile over combat.
“He said that his father was a veteran of World War II, and this guy I think was in the Army,” Cox recalled. “He talked to his father, and with his father he decided that he simply wasn’t going to go to Vietnam. It was an unjust war. It was killing people of color.
“He told his unit he was not going to show up,” Cox continued. “He received a telegram that said that he should report to a certain place, I think a port in Los Angeles, and he would be transported in irons as a prisoner to Vietnam and forced to join his unit. His father looked at the telegram and said ‘no, the white people have kept us in chains too long. They’re not going to keep my son in chains.’”
Cox’s example was not the norm. Most black men did not resist the draft, and many actively chose to defend their country. Herbert Sweat thought that key to his manhood would be earning his wings after five jumps at Fort Benning, Georgia. His father, uncles, brothers, grandfather, and great uncles had all served in the military, and a paratrooper uniform was part of the family wardrobe. But when he enlisted out of high school in the 1960s, it was about more than continuing a tradition.
“Going in the war wasn’t only a legacy then, or a passage of rights, but again it was to prove myself to be equal and even Americanized,” Sweat said. “Like any other man, you’re supposed to fight for your country.”
After joining up, black troops found themselves in daunting situations on southern bases. Originally from Philadelphia, McIntyre traveled down to Fort Jackson in South Carolina to get his equipment, then loaded onto a military bus to Fort Benning with other recruits.
“We were going down through a pine forest out of which a highway had been cut, and when we reached the border between South Carolina and Georgia there was a big sign board that said ‘Welcome to Georgia, Knights of the KKK,’” McIntyre remembered. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the Army and I’m on my way to fight for freedom and justice for people I don’t know. And I’ve been welcomed to Georgia by the knights of the KKK.’”
While soldiers waited for deployment to Vietnam and its surroundings, civil rights activists were staging sit-ins, bus rides, and other peaceful protests. But black G.I.s were urged to think hard before exercising their First Amendment rights.
“As soldiers, sometimes you got punished doubly… if you got in trouble with the law in the town because you protested against segregation and second class treatment,” McIntyre said. “When they released you from jail, you got punished at the Army post as well because you brought dishonor."
"Racism —it was just part of life, it was just part of the culture," he added. "It was no big deal.”
“But when you go into the war, you got to protect each other’s back,” interjected Monroe Handy, another Philadelphian who was stationed in Hawaii and deployed to Laos between 1962 and 1963. “And no matter how much racism you got, you tried not to look at it.”
Overseas, black soldiers were assigned to more dangerous positions than their white, upper-class counterparts. “You thought about that, but you didn’t speak of it,” Handy said. “More or less you had a place and you stayed in it.”
"People of color were still being used as the forebrothers into the worst of job sites," Sweat said. "You would think, ‘I would love to have been a secretary, or an administrative worker,’ where we were on some kind of fire support base, or some kind of rear echelon base."
As a veteran service officer and a board member at Black Veterans for Social Justice in New York, Sweat often speaks to other minority veterans who served in more recent conflicts, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They will tell you that even to this day it’s still what’s going on out here in our world,” he said. “There’s still a lot of racism. There’s still a lot of discrimination. There’s still a lot of oppressing the people of color.”
Sweat says he’s keeping a cautious eye on the Black Lives Matter movement to further the work of civil rights advocates like King.
“When I see a Black Lives movement, these are my children, I feel,” he said. “Do I support them? Of course I do.”