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Fort Hood 1968: A center of Black GI rebellion

Published Nov 20, 2009 11:04 PM

The televised scenes and photos from Fort Hood, Texas, following the Nov. 5 shooting at the “Soldier Readiness Center” that left 13 dead, brought back memories of another time when that enormous military base was a center of political struggle. It was a different political period, when millions of young people were resisting the war against Vietnam and when African Americans in particular were in open rebellion against racism.

In that atmosphere of general mass upsurge, government provocations resulted not simply in individual acts, but in organized resistance. At Fort Hood, the result was a rebellion of Black GIs, most of them back from a year in Vietnam.

This was the political background: On July 23, 1967, a rebellion in Detroit’s African-American community began. U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were sent in. Forty-three people were killed and thousands injured.

In January 1968, the Tet Offensive shook U.S. forces in Vietnam and gave notice that the liberation of that country from U.S. imperialism was inevitable. A workers’ general strike nearly led to revolution in France. Back in the U.S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April and Black rebellions erupted in 160 U.S. cities and towns. Among the forces used to suppress these rebellions were 15,000 Army and 45,000 National Guard troops.

Following Dr. King’s killing, some 5,000 GIs from Fort Hood were sent to Chicago. There the notoriously racist Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat and father of the current mayor, ordered “looters and arsonists” shot on sight. At least nine Black civilians died.

By August 1968, Chicago was preparing for massive anti-war demonstrations set to confront the Democratic National Convention. Fort Hood was preparing to send to Chicago troops from the First Armored Division, many of them combat veterans recently returned from Vietnam. There they were to be ready to use maximum force in the Black community, should it join the protests.

Assembly of protest

When Black troops heard of these orders, they spent the night of Aug. 23, 1968, in an all-night assembly of protest that the division’s commander allowed. When morning came, however, military police arrested 43 of the troops for failure to report for reveille. Twenty-five of the 43 were combat veterans.

The GIs immediately got support from the outside. A GI “coffee house,” the Oleo Strut, was in Killeen, Texas, near the base to support dissident GIs. A member of the American Servicemen’s Union at Fort Hood called the ASU office in New York. A Black MP supplied the names of the 43 soldiers to the union. The ASU was an anti-war and anti-racist GIs’ organization, based on the class differences between ordinary soldiers and officers, whose aim was to break the chain of command.

Within three days, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union were supplying legal help while the ASU went to the base to visit the arrested troops and get their stories for publicity and to build support.

The courts martial took place in groups of five or six soldiers. The six troops the military brass considered the ringleaders of the assembly were tried at the end of October 1968. Their civilian attorney was the ECLC’s Michael Kennedy. Life Magazine’s Roger Vaughn was at the trial covering the case.

Instead of trying to crush the movement with repression, the brass settled on giving short sentences and letting many of the GIs off on a technicality. In the October trial, two were given three-month sentences and bad-conduct discharges, two got just bad discharges, and two were acquitted.

Mass resistance grows inside military

Mass resistance both to the war and to institutional racism continued to grow within the military. The Pentagon got more “assemblies” of the Fort Hood type, from Europe to Vietnam. One, which became known as the Darmstadt 53, wound up in a victory for the troops. Four of the Black troops were even able to visit Paris and meet with the famous Vietnamese negotiator Madame Nguyen Thi Binh.

Later, in November 1974, the then racist apartheid South African army advanced through Angola to replace the Portuguese who were leaving. Revolutionary Cuba came to help the Angolans. The South Africans screamed for help that the U.S. had promised. The 509th Airborne Infantry, the Rapid Deployment Force of those days, stationed in Vicenza in northern Italy, was readied.

Some 45 percent of the GIs there were African American or Latino. In their GI paper, “Getting the News,” they wrote, “We don’t know much about Angola, but if we are sent there we will shoot it if it’s white.” Their officers, many of whom were white, suggested that the 509th Airborne not be sent to Africa. It wasn’t. The Cubans and Angolans smashed the South African offensive. The apartheid leaders complained bitterly, as dissident South African soldiers later told Max Watts, one of the key supporters of GI groups in Europe.

The history of those days shows that when a general mood of struggle grips a broad section of the population, serious military resistance can even stop an imperialist offensive. Can such a movement develop in today’s volunteer army? After the Fort Hood killings, as the Obama administration weighs escalating the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, this possibility has to be under consideration.

Catalinotto was a civilian organizer for the ASU from 1967 to 1970. He helped organize the defense of the Fort Hood 43 and attended the October 1968 trial.