How did the Black Power movement understand the Vietnam War?

On February 1, 1960, four African American college students walked into the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, purchased a few items, and then sat down at the lunch counter. All throughout the South, lunch counters like the one Greesnboro were reserved for whites only. So, when Izell Blair, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, and David Richmond asked to be served, the waitress refused and asked them to leave. They didn’t. One of them remembered thinking “Maybe they can’t do anything to us. Maybe we can keep it up.”1 The following day, they returned with about 30 other students from North Caroline Agricultural and Technical College, the historically black college they attended. Over the next month, as tens of thousands of young people all across the South participated in the same kind of protest a new phase of the Civil Rights Movement was born.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “Snick”) grew out of the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960. Founded in April 1960 at a planned meeting of student leaders from both the North and the South, SNCC grew into one of the most significant organizations of the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s. Famous for their role in the 1961 “Freedom Rides” and as the lead organization behind the 1964 “Freedom Summer,” SNCC was equally well-known for the ways they changed politically throughout the 1960s. By the late 1960s, SNCC—a group that had begun as a multiracial (black and white youth) organization committed to nonviolence—had become a leading proponent of “black power” and an active critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam.”2

SNCC’s evolution into a Black Power organization happened in the two-year period between 1964 and 1966. The ways that shift represented a fundamental change in their perspective on the world can be seen in their 1966 statement on Vietnam. In July 1966, after they had completed their training, three soldiers (stationed at Fort Hood, in Texas) refused to be sent off to the war in Vietnam. The group—one of whom was white, one black, and one Latino—became known as the “Fort Hood Three.” 3 Throughout the summer they attracted the attention of youth, especially those who were beginning to question the war in Southeast Asia.

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SNCC was an early supporter of the Fort Hood Three. They used their support to call attention to what they called “the United States’ illegal and immoral aggression on the peoples of Vietnam.” 4 For SNCC, the war in Vietnam was deeply tied to racism in the U.S. and around the globe. They encouraged “nonwhites” to “resist the efforts of the national government to use them as cannon fodder for racist oppression around the world.” 5

Notes
1 Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981), 10.

2 Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 1995), 363-390.

3 The Fort Hood Three Defense Committee, “The Fort Hood Three: The Case of the Three G.I.’s Who Said “No” to the War in Vietnam,” pamphlet (New York: The Fort Hood Three Defense Committee, July 1966).

4 “SNCC Statement” in The Fort Hood Three Defense Committee, “The Fort Hood Three: The Case of the Three G.I.’s Who Said “No” to the War in Vietnam,” pamphlet (New York: The Fort Hood Three Defense Committee, July 1966), 22.

5 “SNCC Statement.”

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