African American Liberation and the Vietnamese Revolution: African American History Month Series #8

With the escalation of United States involvement in Southeast Asia, a mass movement arose against the genocidal war

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

“Up in French Indochina, those little peasants, rice-growers, took on the might of the French army and ran all the Frenchmen, you remember Dien Bien Phu! The same thing happened in Algeria, in Africa. They didn’t have anything but a rifle. The French had all these highly mechanized instruments of warfare. But they put some guerilla action on. And a white man can’t fight a guerilla warfare. Guerilla action takes heart, takes nerve, and he doesn’t have that. [cheering] He’s brave when he’s got tanks. He’s brave when he’s got planes. He’s brave when he’s got bombs. He’s brave when he’s got a whole lot of company along with him. But you take that little man from Africa and Asia; turn him loose in the woods with a blade. A blade. [cheering] That’s all he needs. All he needs is a blade. And when the sun comes down – goes down and it’s dark, it’s even-Stephen. [cheering]”

Malcolm X speech entitled “The Ballot or the Bullet” delivered in Detroit on April 12, 1964

These words were spoken by Malcolm X at the King Solomon Baptist Church on the westside of Detroit. The address was made just prior to the departure of Malcolm X to Africa and West Asia where he made the Hajj in Saudi Arabia and visited numerous African states.

African American opposition to the Vietnam War was a logical response to the national oppression suffered by Black people after a century since the conclusion of the Civil War. The failure of Federal Reconstruction between 1865-1877 had resulted in the era of Jim Crow and what is described as “the Nadir”, an historical period of super-exploitation, national oppression and the failure of local, state and the federal governments to implement the Constitutional Amendments and Civil Rights legislation passed in the 1860s and 1870s.

The following year on April 17, 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for the largest demonstration against the Vietnam War up until that time. It is reported that 15,000-20,000 people participated in the demonstration in Washington, D.C. Bob Moses, a leading organizer in SNCC represented the organization and spoke at the rally.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had just begun his full term of office after inheriting the position in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in March 1965 ordered the deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into South Vietnam under the guise of halting the spread of communism. Similar claims were made in 1950 when the administration of President Harry S. Truman, under the rubric of the United Nations, invaded Korea. The Korean war began officially in June 1950 and continued for another three years before an Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Since 1953, there has not been a comprehensive peace agreement signed between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Republic of Korea, the U.S. and the UN.

In a document published by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in July 1965, members responded to the combat death of a young man known by several civil rights organizers in the state. An entry in the SNCC Digital archives notes:

“In late July 1965, a group of young activists in McComb, Mississippi’s Movement learned that John Shaw, one of their former classmates at Burglund High School, was killed in combat in Vietnam. The news stung them and that he was fighting in Vietnam seemed hypocritical–Why should young Black men fight and die in far-off Vietnam when first-class citizenship and freedom was denied to them in Mississippi? They wrote and released a broadside declaring in part that “Negro boys should not honor the draft [and] mothers should encourage their sons not to go.” Their public denouncement was the first anti-war statement from within the Civil Rights Movement and paved the way for SNCC to take a stance against the war.”

Although SNCC had participated in the April 17 antiwar demonstration in Washington, a statement articulating its position was not formally released to the public until January 6, 1966, in the wake of the murder of one of their activists Sammy Younge, Jr. in Alabama. Between July 1965 and early 1966 several monumental events occurred including the Watts Rebellion in August and the burgeoning organizing work which resulted in the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the original Black Panther Party.

The overall atmosphere in the African American community, particularly among youth and workers, was becoming far more radical. Consequently, it was not surprising when SNCC wrote that:

“We, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have been involved in the black peoples’ struggle for liberation and self-determination in this country for the past five years. Our work, particularly in the South, has taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens, and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders…. We ask, where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States? We therefore encourage those Americans who prefer to use their energy in building democratic forms within this country. We believe that work in the civil rights movement and with other human relations organizations is a valid alternative to the draft. We urge all Americans to seek this alternative, knowing full well that it may cost them their lives–as painfully as in Vietnam.”

During the May 1966 national SNCC conference, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) was elected chairman. His work in Lowndes County had gained attention across the U.S. Opposition to the war in Vietnam, the militant demands of the civil rights movement and the launching of the Black Power movement represented a sharp turning point in the work of SNCC as well as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Both organizations adopted the Black Power slogan and the program of independent politics including opposition to the draft which fueled U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

Diane Nash, who joined the struggle while a student in Nashville at Fisk University, gained national attention for her leadership role in the sit-ins to end legalized segregation in 1960 and later the Freedom Rides” during the Spring of 1961. In December 1966, she traveled with four other women working with various peace organizations to North Vietnam with stopovers in the Soviet Union and China.

In a report on the trip written by Nash and published in Freedomways journal she noted that:

“Finally, on January 2 we had an hour-long discussion with President Ho Chi Minh. He seems to be a very gentle man. He is 76 years old but is very alert and shows no signs of becoming senile. He is determined that Vietnam be reunified and independent. He expressed regret that so many American youth were dying on Vietnamese soil but said, ‘If they came to teach or to help us build, we would welcome them, but they come to our country to kill us, so we have no other choice but to kill them.’ He said, ‘in this war we are at home. We want peace, but we insist on peace with independence.’”

During 1967, Carmichael traveled to Puerto Rico and later Cuba, Egypt, Tanzania, Guinea-Conakry, England, France, China, North Vietnam and several Scandinavian countries. James Forman, the former Executive Secretary of SNCC, established an International Affairs division where he served as Director between 1967-1969. Forman spoke on more than one occasion to the Fourth Committee of the UN on Decolonization where he addressed the then ongoing armed struggles in Southern Africa and the unconditional solidarity advanced by SNCC and other liberation forces within the African American community.

Amid the rising opposition to the war within the Civil Rights Movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had written documents and resolutions critical of the war as early as 1965. However, it would not be until early 1967 that Dr. King came out publicly against the War, linking it to the failure of the Johnson administration to fulfill its promises of the Great Society and the War on Poverty.

King’s position on Vietnam, his determination to bring forward the plight of poor people in the U.S. and the intensification of the fight against racism contributed to his further alienation from the Johnson administration and subsequent assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Although King had initially refrained from condemning the war, his wife, Coretta Scott King, had participated in anti-war demonstrations related to Vietnam as early as 1965.

Black Panther newspaper 1970
Black Panther newspaper 1970.

Panthers for Pentagon Prisoners of War

Building upon the relationships between African Americans and the Vietnamese, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense founded in October 1966 in Oakland, developed new solidarity programs between the two peoples. Moreover, during the 1920s, Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Indochinese Communist Party and later the Communist Party of Vietnam, lived in New York City where he was a supporter of Marcus Garvey. There is a document written by the Vietnamese revolutionary leader on the plight of African Americans.

By 1968, the Black Panther Party had gained notoriety internationally. In December of that year a solidarity conference on Vietnam was held in Montreal. Bobby Seale, co-founder with Huey P. Newton of the Oakland-based BPP, was invited to address the meeting attended by delegates from 25 countries. The conference would endorse both the National Liberation Front fighting in South Vietnam and the Panthers as the vanguard organizations in the struggle against imperialism.

The following year at the First Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria, the BPP was invited alongside liberation movements and governments from throughout the continent. The Panthers were recognized as the legitimate representatives of the African American people. They would establish an International Section beginning in 1969 during the festival at the location vacated by the NLF.

Several weeks later during the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial, the socialist government in Hanoi offered to turn over all U.S. Prisoners of War in exchange for the release of Panther leaders and co-founders, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, then incarcerated in California and Illinois. The U.S. administration under then President Richard Nixon immediately rejected the proposal. Later there was a modified version of the Vietnamese offer which was called “Panthers for Pilots”, where for each Pentagon operative released in Hanoi, there would be the liberation of detained members of the Party, which in 1969-1970 included hundreds of cadres across the country. After the release of Newton on appeal in August 1970, he continued the outreach to the Vietnamese by pledging to send Panther cadres to assist the NLF fighting in the South of the country.

These historical examples of African Americans and their opposition to the Vietnam War provide only a glimpse of the widespread solidarity efforts. Despite the increasing bans on literature which examines resistance history in the U.S., people must continue to seek out and demand information and knowledge which reveal the actual situation in the U.S. and the world.


African American History Month Series #1: Impact of the Haitian Revolution on Resistance History

African American History Month Series #2: African Emigration and the United States Civil War 

African American History Month Series #3: Emancipation, the Nadir and Pan-African Awakenings

African American History Month Series #4: Revels Cayton – Unsung African American Hero of Labor History

African American History Month Series #5: Pan-African Struggles Against Colonialism and the First Imperialist War: 1876-1919

African American History Month Series #6: Cultural Renaissance, Economic Crises and the Struggle Against Fascism, 1919-1945

African American History Month Series #7: African Americans and the Cold War from Civil Rights to Black Power

African American History Month Series #9: Before and Beyond Vietnam

African American History Month Series #10: Pan-Africanism and Palestine Solidarity, Then and Now (Part I)

African American History Month Series #10: Pan-Africanism and Palestine Solidarity, Then and Now (Part II)

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