Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

NAACP Support of the Vietnam War: 1963-1969

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

NAACP Support of the Vietnam War: 1963-1969

Article excerpt

   Onward ghetto soldiers, marching as to war,
   with the goals of freedom, going on before.
   NAACP'ers lead against the foe,
   Forward into battle, see our banners go! (Current, 227)

Introduction

Bishop Spottswood must surely have been aware of the irony of his concluding remarks at the 59th Annual Convention of the NAACP in 1968, as he brought the crowd to its feet with his rendition of the well-known hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. While he was marching NAACP civil rights soldiers to the war against American racism in the late 1960's, a disproportionate number of African-American soldiers assigned to combat duty were dying in Vietnam. Spottswood's concluding remarks are symbolic of a concerted effort by the NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins to avoid alienating President Johnson's support for civil rights initiatives, as well as to promote the role of African-American involvement in the Vietnam War. From 1963-1969, numerous articles, editorials, and photo essays within the pages of the Crisis highlighted the accomplishments of African-American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, the first racially integrated war fought by the U.S. government. Conspicuously absent from the pages of the Crisis during this period were articles and editorials critical of American involvement in Vietnam.

Lack of NAACP critique of American involvement in Vietnam is usually viewed as evidence of this organization's primary concern with domestic civil rights issues, to include a fear of alienating mainstream political and economic support for the overall work of the NAACP. However, the NAACP historically exhibited a commitment to racial justice both domestically and internationally. At the turn of the twentieth century, and only six years after the organization was founded in 1909, the NAACP was involved in efforts to end the U.S. military occupation of Haiti throughout the nineteen year period (1915-1934) of U.S. intervention into the sovereign affairs of the western hemisphere's first Black republic. James Weldon Johnson, head of the NAACP from 1916-1929 (and a previous diplomat to Venezuela and Nicaragua) and Walter White, who led the organization from 1930 to 1955, shared a common international cause: ending U.S. intervention in Haiti. Both leaders were determined to confront civil rights issues on the domestic front as well as maintain vigilant agitation within the international arena, and both were successful with these simultaneous tasks.

The NAACP's opposition to U.S. intervention in Haiti, support for the Pan-African movement of the early twentieth century, and involvement in other international activities throughout the twentieth century occurred while the NAACP was dealing with numerous domestic issues. This organization was no stranger to simultaneous confrontation of issues involving racial equality on the domestic and international fronts throughout most of the twentieth century. In the 1960's, even during the period just prior to the crucial passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the NAACP, while not critical of the Vietnam War, was vocal on a number of other prominent international issues. From the period 1963 to 1979, more than thirty articles and editorials in the Crisis (eleven during 1963-1964 alone--at the height of efforts to ensure passage of the 1964 Civil Rights bill) were devoted to international issues other than Vietnam.

Efforts to Avoid Alienating Supporters

Rather than criticize President Johnson for his handling of the war in Vietnam, the NAACP praised him in appreciation for his support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Wilkins set the tone for limiting, if not outright banning any critique of U.S. policy in Vietnam by NAACP officials very early in the war out of respect for his friendship with Johnson and as a political concession. The day after the assassination of John E Kennedy in November 1963, Johnson immediately had a White House staff person phone Wilkins for a meeting to discuss passage of the civil rights bill begun by Kennedy. …

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