In a 1969 survey, 56 percent of African-American soldiers serving in Vietnam said they used the so-called Black Power salute. For some, the raised-fist gesture signaled their opposition to a “white man’s war” in Asia. Others were protesting racial discrimination within the military, where blacks made up a large fraction of combat troops but a tiny percentage of officers.
We don’t know why 16 black female cadets at West Point raised their fists in a pre-graduation photo, which unleashed a torrent of controversy when it was posted on social media last week. Critics suspected that the women were expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which might violate the military’s prohibition on political activity while in uniform. Defenders countered that the women were simply displaying strength in sisterhood, mimicking pop stars.
But it’s more likely that the women were showing their support for the military, which has been a source of black pride and achievement over the past half-century. And the best way to see that is to look back at the Vietnam era, when African-Americans were still second-class citizens in the military.
Blacks were twice as likely to be conscripted into the military as whites, who benefitted more from student deferments. Nor could blacks expect a fair hearing from local draft boards, where only 1.5 percent of members in 1967 were African-American.
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Black soldiers were more likely to be assigned to menial tasks. They also faced harassment. In one platoon, white soldiers celebrated the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. by parading in makeshift Ku Klux Klan costumes and burning crosses.
Eager to rise in the ranks, blacks often volunteered for the most dangerous combat assignments. But their valor was rarely rewarded with promotions.
No wonder so many blacks protested. Forming organizations with names like the Malcolm X Association, African-American soldiers held rallies and published underground newspapers. They demanded the right to wear Afros. They flew black flags from patrol boats and substituted black berets for regulation helmets.
They often replaced the traditional military salute with the Black Power one. On a South Carolina base, one soldier recalled, blacks frequently “gave the fist” to white officers driving by. The officers would stop and demand a traditional salute. But after the officers left, the black soldiers would raise their fists again.
After the war, the military took huge steps to fight racism in its ranks. It worked. Between 1976 and 2003, the percentage of black officers in the armed forces tripled.
There was change at the top, too. In 1977, Jimmy Carter appointed Clifford Alexander as the first black Secretary of the Army. Twelve years later George H.W. Bush chose Colin Powell to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer.
But African-Americans are still under-represented in military leadership. And in a 2009 study, over one-quarter of black and Hispanic Army officers reported experiencing racial discrimination in their current units.
Meanwhile, female soldiers face sexual violence as well as discrimination.
But it’s hard to imagine that the women in the West Point photo raised the Black Power salute to protest the military, which has made greater strides towards racial justice than almost any other American institution. The women posed in traditional “Old Corps” gray uniforms, with sabers by their sides. They weren’t giving the fist to the military. If anything, they were celebrating it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University.