"Keep Our Black Warriors out of the Draft": The Vietnam Antiwar Movement at Southern University, 1968-1973

Article excerpt

During the late 1960s and early 70s, the antiwar movement gained momentum and introduced a new wave of protest and demonstrations throughout the nation. Antiwar demonstrators clashed with law enforcement officials, university administrators, and working-class hawks. At many colleges and universities, military training programs were discontinued or in jeopardy of losing their appeal. Many individuals associated with the antiwar movement used the opportunity to denounce numerous social and economic inequities that existed in American society (Isserman & Kazin, 2000).

Although anti-war protest existed at Black colleges and universities, it was quite different from the front-page confrontations at the University of California at Berkeley or Ivy League institutions. In large part, there were no sit-in demonstrations, marches, or clashes with state police or the National Guard. Most of the protests were rhetorical, in the form of a speaker addressing small gatherings or newspaper debates. Much of the violence that did involve students on Black campuses directly related to civil rights protest or demonstrations involving administrative policies, not military training. Compulsory ROTC was only mentioned in addition to other civil rights issues and university complaints. Black institutions with a history of military training such as Southern, Tuskegee, Prairie View, Hampton, Virginia State, and Howard Universities, did not witness any violence as a direct result of the antiwar movement (Johnson, 2001).

Many of the significant works written about antiwar protest during the Vietnam war at institutions of higher education were published throughout the 1980s and 90s. Several of those monographs such as Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of The Vietnam Antiwar Movement (1995), Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (1993), An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (1990), Assault on the Left: The FBI and the Sixties Antiwar Movement (1997), and Confronting The War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War (2003) primarily focus on the evolution of antiwar student activism in the post World War II era, student activities at traditionally White institutions, and what prompted young Americans throughout the nation to invest so much of themselves to this ideological cause. In relation to the "Black experience," each manuscript highlights the civil rights movement, national Black leadership, and significant organizations such as the Black Panther Party and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. What is missing however is detailed reference to antiwar activism at Black colleges and universities, the slayings at Jackson State University, and most important, how and why was the antiwar movement different at African American institutions where military service and training had a major impact on the Black community. This study attempts to document the anti-war and ROTC protest movement at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in particular Southern University between 1968 and 1973.

In 1968, although many students were calling for an end to compulsory ROTC at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the decision to abolish mandatory military training did not reflect the hostility or intensity displayed on White college campuses and universities. Throughout the late 1960s, antiwar supporters and pro-military advocates at Southern engaged in a continual debate about the merits of military service and training. Student leaders, faculty, and Black power activists argued their viewpoints with ROTC cadets, military officials, and administrators who embraced the military tradition at their institution. Most of the debate appeared in campus newspapers. The dispute included rhetorical attacks, rebuttals, and direct insults. While the civil rights movement continued to take precedence over the war in Vietnam for most African Americans, military training and service continued to offer economic benefits and opportunities that were hard for others to ignore (Neiberg, 2000). …

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