1967 - How two black G.I.s were sentenced to 16 years in prison for speaking against the Vietnam War
George Daniels had the distinct impression that the jury was not listening. While his defense lawyer spoke, members of the all-white jury were sharpening their pencils, scribbling on their notepads, and generally looking disinterested in the proceedings. But when the prosecutor spoke, the jurors appeared rapt.
Daniels imagined what they were thinking: “We’ll really get this guy this time.” It was the winter of 1967, and Daniels and another black Marine, William Harvey, were on trial in Camp Pendleton, California. At the commencement of their separate trials, the jurors came forward with their judgement. They were guilty. Daniels and Harvey were sentenced to six and 10 years in prison. Their crime? Talking.
Officially, the men were charged with “disloyal statements” and “advising, urging and attempting to cause insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty.” Their cases were one of a slew of extreme punishments doled out by military courts in an apparent attempt to squelch the swelling anti-war sentiment within their ranks. In 1967, an Army doctor was imprisoned for more than two years for refusing to train special forces bound for Vietnam. In 1969, two soldiers were sentenced to four years of hard labor for distributing an anti-war leaflet on their base. Not long after, another was sentenced for six months, just for making plans to do the same.
But it wasn’t just anti-war speech that was on trial. In 1970, one G.I. was sentenced to three years of hard labor for refusing to cut his afro. “This is just another example of the white man’s justice,” the man said. Like many black service members, Daniels and Harvey were disturbed by their role in what they called a “white man’s war.” Racism within the military and disproportionate sentencing for servicemen of color during the Vietnam War is well documented. The brass intended to make an example of them, likely not just for their anti-war stance, but also in an attempt to root out black radicalism.
Daniels speculated that nobody would care if the military locked away people like him and Harvey. But black service members were some of the war’s most trenchant critics. Black pride was inextricably bound up in anti-war sentiments. When asked about black servicemen’s attitudes to the war, Daniels cited James Brown’s 1968 song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud.” TIME magazine sent a reporter, Wallace Terry, to Saigon to find out what was going on with black troops. “All were filled with a sense of black pride and purpose,” Wallace wrote. The French newspaper, Le Monde reported, “A common sight is the black soldier, with his left fist clenched in defiance of a war he has never considered his own.”
This pride mingled with outrage at the futility of the war and the racism they suffered in their ranks. It was an injustice that was compounded by the fact that they were sure to face more racism at home — if they survived. A black vet Wallace interviewed said, “I was thinking we needed a revolution. A physical revolution.” The same year as Daniels and Harvey were sentenced, race riots erupted across the country in what became known as the Long Hot Summer. Roughly 16,000 people were arrested in more than 75 riots everywhere from Buffalo and Tampa to Detroit. The violence against black bodies was to many inseparable from the violence of war. When asked why black service men were in revolt, Daniels explained, “Everything this country has, she achieved through violence.”
The men were held in Portsmouth Naval Prison, in Kittery, Maine. When asked what it was like, Harvey said, “In Portsmouth it is psychological slavery.” Marches were held for the men outside the prison. While this must have been consoling, Harvey and Daniels said they were being punished for it. The officers said that since he was causing trouble, he couldn’t have his typist job anymore. He was told to make their beds instead. They began to see the rigid military hierarchy as a tool of oppression, a reminder of their lowly status, despite being older and often having more experience than their superiors. Daniels said, “we have CMPs and prisoners here 25, 26 years old, who have been in the service for years and years, having to say yes-sir to a man who’s just out of college.” In his three years in the military, Daniels had only ever encountered two black officers. The parole boards were white. Black servicemen were twice as likely to be dishonorably discharged.
He believed the military’s tactic was to break them, so that when they went back out into the world, they would think twice before taking on the establishment. The parole boards asked them questions like, “Do you plan on joining any anti-government movements?” Harvey wondered, “how can you answer something like this before a board?”
After about a couple of years and much protest and lawyering, Daniels and Harvey’s sentences were commuted. And as antiwar outrage grew both inside and out of the military, it became untenable to to mete out such long sentences.
Revolutionary thought is a many-headed hydra. Chop off one head and two sprout back. As Todd Gitlin wrote in The Sixties, by 1971, there were seven desertions and 17 AWOL incidents for every hundred soldiers. Anti-war troops declared May 15th, 1971 “Armed Farces Day,” and 19 simultaneous demonstrations were held on military bases. Service members tossed their medals onto the Washington, D.C.’s Capitol steps in protest and troops in Vietnam were seen wearing black armbands — a symbol of the anti-war resistance. “There were antiwar Vietnam veterans whose moral standing for opposing the war was unlike any other,” Gitlin wrote. Daniels said of his fellow black servicemen, “at long last, they’re saying that they no longer accept this.”