Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum

Book Review

The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military

Written by Gerald Astor
Published by Presido Press: Novato, CA - 1998

Current edition published by DaCapo Press; (April 24, 2001)
ISBN: 030681031X

We have always served! African Americans volunteered, served and lost thier lives in every war. Crispus Attucks was the first African American fatality in the American Revolution althrough he was regarded as property. During the War of 1812, black freemen could join in the armed forces but slaves could not. When President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for the defense of the Union during the Civil War, many blacks volunteered. In 1862, Congress authorized the enlistment of black men but offered them less money. The armed forces in the north began to allow blacks to serve so Lincoln warned the south that if they did not surrender, he would declare slaves as free people.

In 1866, Congress established four black infantry regiments (later reduced to the 24th & 25th Infantry) and two black cavalry units (the 9th & 10th horse Cavalry). These units - the Buffalo Soldiers - protected the western frontier and fought in the Indian Wars, the War with Spain, World War I, and World War II.

In 1940, two million blacks who had endured the years of the Great Depression joined and served in WWII. Many towns above the Mason-Dixon line opposed the defense systems inclusion of blacks. The citizens of Oscoda, MI demanded removal of black soldiers from their town. Residents of Spokane, WA; Albuquerque, NM; Las Vegas, NE; and Battle Creek, MI expressed concerns about lodging black soldiers. Tucson, AZ refused a $50,000 grant to build a USO for the exclusive use of black soldiers. Race issues could be felt overseas as well. Australia ahd a no-blacks immigration policy while Hawaii, Panama, Bermuda, Iceland, Trinidad, South America, and even Liberia were inhospitable toward blacks. To avoid conflicts, the War Department located several all-black units at Ft. Huachuca, AZ - 50 miles from the nearest town. Officers' clubs, hospitals, and mess halls were separated by race since the officers were white.

In March 1944, the first wings of Army parachutist were given to 21 black officers in the 555th Division known as the "Triple Nickel." The 450th Anti-aircraft Battalion was honored for being the first blacks in the Army to face enemy fire in WWII. They received credit for shooting down several German bombers. When WWII ended, the black soldiers had flown 1,578 missions and more than 15,000 sorties. Tuskegee graduates destroyed or damaged more than 400 enemy aircraft. Other all-black units, the Red Tails and the Black Eagles, victimized a considerable amount of enemy locomotives and trucks. One statistic stands out - zero escorted Allied bombers lost to enemy fighters.

Once the war was over, reentry into civilian life raised racial issues. After seeing photos of black soldiers dancing with German women, a commander wrote to Eisenhower - "I do not know where these Negroes come from but it is likely if they expect to return to the south they will be hanged or burned alive at a public lynching." To keep blacks from re-enlisting, the War Dept. placed a ceiling on the number of blacks it would accept during peace time by raising the score on the entry test.

Buffalo Soldier Monument, 9th & 10th (horse) Cavalry Association 134th Reunion Anniversary, July 2000, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas
Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
Ft. Leavenwork, KS 2000

Racial incidents continued. During the Korean War, a white officer observed the 24th Infantry heading for the front line while the white regiment they were replacing hiked down the other side of the road shouting racial slurs and insults. The Korean War ended about a year after the orders to end segregation were issued and the black units were assigned to other regiments.

By 1966, U.S. involvement in Vietnam had deepened while in the U.S., race riots were heating up and television stories of the war were raising awareness. Soldiers tended to ignore race in the front lines, while the rear echelons remained hostile. Black soldiers returning to the U.S. were agitated and hostile and posed potential trouble for home communities. The Defense Department ignored the findings and developed modest programs to improve relationships. Passage of anti-discrimination laws for civilians did not immediately affect the miltary. Laws could not change the hearts and minds of people.

In 1971, the Defense Department established the Race Relations Institute at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The Institute trained military personnel and collected research on programs. Statistics about the military justice system were compiled. At the end of the Vietnam War, 21% of the Army soldiers were black while 26% of the incidents were charged to them. Only 16% of the narcotics cases and 18.7% fo the AWOLs were against blacks, compared to 21% (in both cases) for white GIs. In addition, 23.3% of the white soldiers received counseling compared to 8.3% of the black soldiers.

In the Marine Corps, 16.2% of the soldiers were black and 23.3% were charged with crimes. They were also responsible for 31% of the incidents that involved a confrontation or status questioning an authority figure. For whites, 19.2% received counseling compared to 10.4% of blacks.

For all military branches, 39.8% of blacks endured pretrial confinement for offenses compared to 8.3% for whites. Althrough blacks represented 11.5% of the military, 34.5% of them were court martialed. Of those incarcerated at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, 47.3% were enlisted blacks although they represent only 13.1% of the non-commissioned personnel. They also received longer terms of hard labor.

Currently, the armed forces possesses an advantage to dealing with racial incidents. By its structure, soldiers are forced to work in integrated situations with fewer chances of changing job. The right to fight has clearly been a tough military battle from the days of slavery until today. Danger occurs when the government believes that the "war" has been won and complacency sets in. Battles have been won, but the war continues.

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