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

From an appeal to the United Nations and opposition to imperialist war, the movements for civil rights and peace proved costly to the African American people

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

Even though the United States government, in its propaganda during World War II, suggested that there would be greater freedoms for African Americans in the wake of the defeat of European fascism and imperial Japan, in reality a very different social situation prevailed. There was an immediate upsurge in both mob and police violence directed at Black communities across the country, particularly in the South.

During 1946 and 1947, three horrendous incidents occurred. African American Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard, after being honorably discharged in February 1946, was traveling from Georgia to South Carolina on a Greyhound bus when the driver summoned the police to arrest the soldier due to an argument over a bathroom stop. Woodard was arrested by Batesburg, South Carolina Police Chief Linwood Shull and severely beaten resulting in permanent blindness. The case gained national attention and was taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by demanding action from the federal government. Although Chief Shull was put on trial in the federal courts, a jury acquitted him after deliberating for 30 minutes.

Later that same year on July 25, 1946, two African American couples were lynched at the Moore’s Ford Bridge just 60 miles outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The lynching occurred after one of the Black men was bailed out of jail being accused of stabbing a white man at a plantation owned by whites.

One source on the incident said that:

“George W. Dorsey (a veteran of WWII), Mae Murray Dorsey, Roger, and Dorothy Malcom (seven months pregnant) were accosted by a mob of white men as they headed to their home. As documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp explains, ‘Roger Malcom had been imprisoned in Walton County for stabbing his white employer. After a week in jail, Malcom’s wife, his brother-in-law, and his wife accompanied a prominent white farmer, Loy Harrison, to bail him out. What they didn’t realize was that this was a set-up to lynch Malcom. At the funeral, an African American man told a journalist from The Chicago Defender, ‘They’re exterminating us. They’re killing Negro veterans, and we don’t have nothing to fight back with except our bare hands.’”

Nothing was ever done to bring the assailants to justice for the lynching. NAACP leaders met with then President Harry S. Truman who, although condemning the racial terror, responded with meager measures such as issuing a report and imposing an executive order to desegregate the military.

Just one year later, on June 29, 1947, in Covington, Tennessee, police officials lynched Jimmy Wade, Sr. who was 36 years old. Wade worked at the Naval base in neighboring Shelby County while he and his wife were building a house for their family of eight children. Wade was picked up on his porch by police officials on Sunday evening while he and his son listened to the church services being held across the street. He was taken to a home right outside the town and accused of attempting to rape a white woman connected with a local grocer. Wade was shot, genitally mutilated, tied to the police sedan and dragged through Covington. After arriving back at the location of the shooting, the police, the grocer and the woman who made the false allegations, noticed that Wade was still breathing. He was then pumped with another 20 bullets.

In an evidentiary hearing several days later in the Tipton County Chancery Court, the police claimed that Wade had pulled a knife on four armed white men. Wade’s brother in an interview conducted later said that Jimmy was killed because he argued with the grocer after he attempted to sell him rotten products, which he refused to pay for. The Court declared Wade’s death justifiable homicide.

These three incidents represent not even a small fraction of the racial terror meted out to African Americans after the conclusion of World War II. The situation was so dangerous that the NAACP submitted a 100-page document to the United Nations entitled “An Appeal to the World: A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress.” The document was written and published under the editorial supervision of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, then the Director for Special Research with the Association.

The appeal to the UN was an important development in the African American struggle in the post-war period. However, within a brief period of time such efforts requesting the intervention of international bodies bypassing the U.S. government clashed with the exigencies of the rapidly developing Cold War.

We Charge Genocide

By 1948, within the African American community and broader progressive movements in the U.S., there was much dissatisfaction with the Truman administration’s response to the escalation in lynchings and unjustifiable police killings. Many people feared the initiation of another imperialist war.

The Progressive Party was formed to counter the reactionary trends dominating U.S. politics and nominated Henry A. Wallace to run for president in 1948. Wallace had served as Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce as well as Vice-President under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a supporter of the New Deal and drew the ire of conservative elements within the Democratic Party. In 1944 he was removed from the last Roosevelt ticket and replaced by Harry S. Truman of Missouri.

Du Bois and others in the civil rights movement chose to back Wallace. His position and open criticism of the Truman bid for the presidency resulted in his dismissal from the NAACP, an organization which he co-founded.

In 1951, Paul Robeson, Eslanda Goode Robeson, Du Bois, Claudia Jones, William Patterson, Dorothy Hunton and many others filed another petition with the UN characterizing the plight of African Americans as genocide. The document further split the civil rights movement with Eleanor Roosevelt threatening to leave the NAACP board if the organization signed on to the document entitled “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People.”

The evidence presented in We Charge Genocide was a damning indictment of the Truman administration and its failure to address institutional racism. Of course, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), which issued the document was accused of being a front for the Communist Party. Over 100 people associated with the CRC and other fraternal groups were criminally charged, prosecuted, imprisoned, and/or deported during the course of the 1950s.

Beyond Vietnam: The Persecution and Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Dr. King, Rosa L. Parks and others inherited the mantle of the mass civil rights movement in the mid-1950s, they too were accused of being communists. The NAACP was banned in several southern states during the 1950s despite its reliance mainly on filing lawsuits in the federal courts.

Therefore, when King delivered his well-publicized speech in opposition to the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, he was met with a torrent of press editorials condemning him for his position. Communications between the Johnson White House and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were severed. SCLC joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and dozens of other antiwar organizations in a mass demonstration to the United Nations on April 15, 1967. A petition was delivered to U-Thant, the then Secretary-General of the UN, demanding his assistance to end the U.S. occupation and blanket bombing of Vietnam.

The King Institute at Stanford University says of the Beyond Vietnam speech by King that:

“The immediate response to King’s speech was largely negative. Both the Washington Post and New York Times published editorials criticizing the speech, with the Post noting that King’s speech had ‘diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people’ through a simplistic and flawed view of the situation (‘A Tragedy,’ 6 April 1967). Similarly, both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Ralph Bunche accused King of linking two disparate issues, Vietnam and civil rights. Despite public criticism, King continued to attack the Vietnam War on both moral and economic grounds.”

SCLC, SNCC and other progressive groups were a part of a movement of millions calling for the immediate end to the war. Muhammad Ali, a member of the Nation of Islam in 1967, refused induction after being drafted into the military saying that “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a N word”. Youth burned draft cards, participated in actions to shut down recruitment and induction centers, went into exile in Canada and other countries to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

King was assassinated one year to the date of his Beyond Vietnam speech on April 4, 1968. He was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee while supporting a sanitation workers strike demanding recognition as a bargaining unit within the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). His assassination occurred as he prepared to lead a Poor People’s Campaign to occupy Washington, D.C., demanding unprecedented White House and Congressional action aimed at eliminating poverty.

More than five decades since the martyrdom of King, the U.S. is still engaged in imperialistic warmongering in West Asia, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and on the African continent. Those who speak out against interventionism continue to be labeled as leftists and opposed to the interests of the federal government and the capitalist system.

Some individuals and organizations purportedly following the legacy of King and other progressive and revolutionary leaders, refrain from challenging the Pentagon. Perhaps from fear of being characterized as subversives, there are those who even serve as apologists for U.S. military interventions.

Nonetheless, military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, among others, have been met with formidable opposition. These destabilization campaigns, bombings, invasions and occupations have further eroded the political status of the U.S. internationally.


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 #8: African American Liberation and the Vietnamese Revolution

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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