The Civil Radical Battles of the Black American Soldier

Race relations at home and abroad

In his essays, George Orwell alluded to the oft-quoted assertion that American GIs were “oversexed, overpaid, and over here”. But he qualified this with the observation that: “the consensus is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negroes.”

The black American servicemen were welcomed into the leisure time of their British hosts in ways that spread solidarity. A former Black GI, Cleother Hathcock, remembers:

At that time the Jitterbug was in and the Blacks would get a buggin’ and the English just loved that. We would go into a dance hall and just take over the place because everybody wanted to learn how to do that American dance, the Jitterbug. They went wild over that.


The town did not share the US Army’s segregationist attitudes. According to the author Anthony Burgess, who spent time in Bamber Bridge during the war, when US military authorities demanded that the town’s pubs impose a color bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”. The extent to which this rankled the white American troops is shown by the comments of a lieutenant:

One thing I noticed here and which I don’t like is the fact that the English don’t draw any color line. The English must be pretty ignorant. I can’t see how a white girl could associate with a negro.


This sort of attitude exemplifies the particular resentment over the way Black troops openly fraternized with white British women – and many of the confrontations during this period were sparked by the ease of interracial relationships in a British rather than American context.

The military authorities tried to push back against this by imposing Jim Crow segregation in Britain, so that when the Black American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis visited on a propaganda tour in 1944 he encountered blatant discrimination from the troops he was visiting, as he had at home.

Pvt. Joe Louis Says Poster (Photo by David Pollack/Corbis via Getty Images)

The events in Bamber Bridge encapsulated these Jim Crow practices – and the wider paradox of the open-armed welcome from the residents coupled with resentment of that welcome by White American troops. The pub was a place of sanctuary for Black troops where they mingled with, mainly friendly, locals, and where the segregation many had to endure in the American South was thankfully absent.

Resident Gillian Vesey recalled how, as a young barmaid at the Olde Hob Inn, she stood up for African American soldiers against attempts by White Americans to impose discriminatory practices in the pub, insisting that the American white soldiers wait their turn rather than expecting to be served before their Black colleagues.

Keeping a segregated army in the context of fighting for democracy became untenable, and in 1948 the then US president Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which eventually led to an integrated army. While the convictions of the troops involved at Bamber Bridge were largely commuted or overturned, soldiers returned to Jim Crow segregation in the US, with the reality that some veterans were lynched in their uniforms.

But the new freedoms they experienced in Europe meant they were not prepared to put up with discrimination, racism, and racial violence again. As veteran Wilford Strange said in the documentary film Chocolate Soldiers from the USA:

I think the impact these soldiers had by volunteering was the initiation of the Civil Rights movement, ’cos these soldiers were never going back to be discriminated against again. None of us were.


Veterans Day: As the country observes Veterans Day, it’s important to remember that the history of especially Black people in the American military is a complicated one. 

Source: Getty
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pins the Soldier’s Medal on Private Sam Morris at a ceremony in Seattle in April 1943. Morris saved the lives of several people trapped in a burning packing plant when a bomber crashed into the building.


Vietnam War

The May 26, 1967, cover of TIME Cover Credit: ROBERT ELLISON

African Americans played a prominent role in the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was the first American war in which Black and White troops were not formally segregated, and even saw significant growth in the number of African Americans engaged in battlefield combat, though some de facto segregation still occurred.

More than 300,000 Black Americans served in Vietnam. Though only about 12% of the U.S. population, Black servicemembers were 16.3% of the armed forces, and up to 25% of enlisted men in the Army, but only 2% of officers across all branches.

Soldiers in Vietnam do the “dap,” a stylized greeting used to signify a shared black culture and racial unity, 1969. Photo credit: Wallace Terry, courtesy of Janice Terry. Appeared in American Legacy Magazine, Spring 2008.

Approximately 300,000 African Americans served in the Vietnam War. In 1965, African Americans filled 31% of the ground combat battalions in Vietnam, while the percentage of African Americans as a minority in the general population was 12%.      
African-American troops were punished more harshly and more frequently than White troops. A Defense Department study released in 1972 found that Black troops received 34.3% of court-martials, 25.5% of nonjudicial punishments, and 58% of prisoners at Long Bình Jail, a military prison.
Despite promises of equal treatment, Blacks were relegated to separate regiments commanded by White officers. Black soldiers received less pay than White soldiers, inferior benefits, and poorer food and equipment.
DCAS Vietnam Conflict Extract File record counts by RACE OMB NAME ( Race) (as of April 29, 2008 )
Race Number of Records

Views on the war 

At the start of the war the vast majority of African American soldiers “believed America was protecting the sovereignty of the democratically constituted government in South Vietnam and halting the spread of communism in Southeast Asia” King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and death saw disillusionment and anti-war rhetoric grow among African American soldiers. Project 100,000 and racism within the military also furthered the anger of African-American soldiers. By the summer of 1968, correspondent Deckle McLean reported that few African-American soldiers supported the war.

After the war  

In the mid-1980s, African American veterans of the Vietnam War were twice as likely as White veterans to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with a prevalence of 40%.  Reasons for the disparity in PTSD prevalence could include social and racial discord during the war, institutional racism within the military, and racism after the war. Black troops were also more likely than White troops to relate to the Vietnamese people as an impoverished, non-white group. Additionally, Black troops were less likely to rationalize brutal violence employed against the Vietnamese and were significantly more disturbed by it than White troops. It has been speculated that White troops were more able to dehumanize the Vietnamese than Black troops.

According to psychologists Richard Strayer and Lewis Ellenhorn, African-American veterans struggled more than other veterans with a return to civilian life and unemployment based on their race. – Wikipedia