It was the “turbulent 60s,” and it was an audacious move given the sociopolitical climate. Army veteran Medgar Evers, President John Kennedy, and human rights leader Malcolm X had all been assassinated when, in April 1967, a 25-year-old from Louisville declined induction into the United States military.
Muhammad Ali, a conscientious objector, refused to serve in the controversial Vietnam War.
Long on record against the war, a month before, Ali had stated, “…No, I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth.”
Providing further commentary later on a college campus when he was challenged, Ali quipped, “…You my opposer when I want freedom… You won’t even stand up for me in America, for my religious beliefs…you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
The white political establishment was livid. Ali, who had already been pilloried for joining the Nation of Islam, was stripped of his heavyweight title, arrested, charged, and convicted of a felony. On appeal, the conviction was overturned by the United State Supreme Court, but not before Ali had lost three years of boxing at the height of his career.
Ali, who previously had been under the brilliant tutelage of Malcolm X, likely knew something else—that many Black men who had served this country valiantly had been treated savagely, not only in the military, but upon return home. After risking their lives, instead of being treated as heroes, these Black men were often vilified and terrorized by their white countrymen.
In 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was a 26-year-old decorated World War II veteran riding a Greyhound bus in South Carolina on his way home to his wife.
When the bus stopped, the white driver gathered the police, angry because Woodard had earlier requested a bathroom break. The police beat and arrested Woodard — in his Army uniform.
At the jail, the police chief gouged both his eyes with a billy club, permanently blinding him. The chief was acquitted by an all-white jury that deliberated for 30 minutes. Sgt. Woodard had survived war overseas only to be rendered a disabled veteran at home.
Reporting on the case in 2019, the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) noted that, “…between the end of Reconstruction and the years following World War II, thousands of Black veterans were accosted, assaulted, attacked and killed due to their race. For many, merely wearing a uniform created an immediate risk of attack.”
Previously, in 2017, the EJI issued a report called “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans” and noted that, “The hopeful determination
of black veterans seeking equality following military service challenged the defiant determination of white Americans to reinforce white supremacy, maintain racial inequality, and suppress black veterans’ potential as leaders and change agents.”
These lynchings also laid bare the hypocrisy of America, which purported to be fighting for democracy overseas.
George Dorsey, 28, had been home from WWII about ten months when an unmasked mob snatched him, his 23-year-old wife Mae Dorsey, his sister and her husband out of a car and lynched them in broad daylight.
It was 1946, and an NBC news anchor reporting on the story said the bodies were “riddled by 60 bullets,” and that “…A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta.”
But it would later be discovered that it was likely not just poor whites involved, and this had been one of the epiphanies of investigative journalist Ida B. Wells—that prominent white citizens were often involved in or attached to brutal lynchings.
There are so many stories, including that of Chicagoan Dempsey Travis, the historian, author, activist and real estate magnate who died in 2009.
In his book, the “Autobiography of Black Chicago,” he recounts the harrowing experience of serving in the segregated Army at Camp Shenango and being shot three times when white soldiers fired on a group of Black soldiers, including the friend Travis was with—an aspiring doctor—who was shot in the head and killed.
Camp Shenango in Pennsylvania was renamed Camp Reynolds, some say in an attempt to erase the horrific racial history associated with the Camp.
So, as this country continues to reckon with its sordid racial past, the brutal history of the treatment of Black soldiers and veterans has to be honestly examined.
As you celebrate Memorial Day—a day that grateful, newly freed Black people pioneered to honor the dead who served the Union in the Civil War—remember and reflect upon the immense sacrifice that Blacks have made in every single war and “conflict.”
Dr. Sherrod has an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Alabama, a master’s degree in English from Chicago State University and a law degree from the University of Texas. She practiced law in the Chicago metropolitan area for several years prior to enrolling at Jackson State University, where she had her doctorate conferred in clinical psychology. A licensed psychologist in Alabama, she also has completed pre-doctoral and clinic work at Harvard Medical School.