Civil Rights Term Paper

Pages: 11 (4110 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Military

Civil Rights Is More Than a Period in Time

Don't Just Say, "Civil Rights": Believe in Justice as a River of Possibilities

In his acclaimed novel, Bombingham, Anthony Grooms writes skillfully about the battlefields of Vietnam and the battlefields of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular, the battles fought in and around the Alabama city of Birmingham. The title of the book of course is a contemptuous label that African-Americans gave to Birmingham during the movement, when the Black community was terrorized by Bull Conner and countless bigoted police gone out of control, by bombings and shootings and by the reality of twenty or more unsolved murders of Black folks in that community. Thesis Statement: But beyond that window of time in American history, "civil rights" should never become merely a catch-phrase that captures the dynamics of a period in American history, the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, those terrible years were drenched with hostility, bloodshed and a horrifying hate that hovered over the Black community; and no, those times must never be forgotten. But indeed, civil rights should be an ongoing theme, a never-ending movement, a crusade for continuing the fight for justice, a powerful dream that needs to be instilled in cynical young people as well as skeptical older people, of all nationalities and income / social strata. Civil rights should flow through all conscious, fair-minded people, like a river of possibilities.

Meantime, what comes across in Grooms' book, in Magic City by Jewell Parker Rhodes, in the films - Rosewood and Four Little Girls - and in the literature from scholarly databases, is that "civil rights" generally alludes to discrimination against Black people. And it certainly does, as surely as it alludes to discrimination against people of Mexican extraction trying to order food in a funky truck stop when they can't speak English and are bullied by rednecks in a conservative town in south Texas; and civil rights refers most assuredly to the man of Islamic faith and of Pakistani nationality, who has no civil rights as he endures hateful slurs cast towards him (unfairly) because of what bin Laden and his terrorist group did to American on September 11, 2001, and because he looks like "an Arab."

Meanwhile, in Grooms' book, there are some interesting ironies regarding what is "justice" and who is making the decisions about what justice (or injustice) will be delivered. On pages 3-4, Walter Burke, the novel's protagonist is in Vietnam and looking out at the rice paddies at a man in black pajamas, who might be the enemy (a Viet Cong), but he might also be a "papa-san" (a South Vietnamese civilian). "I ain't for capping papa-sans," one soldier says; "He's legal," another chimes in. "Legal my ass," the first one replies. "We had been told it was okay to shoot anyone in black pajamas," Burke, the narrator explains.

It appeared to be an old man, though from the distance it could easily have been an old woman with her hair up. I followed the figure with the point of the barrel," he continued. "I got 'im," Burke called out; his heart "fluttered" as he "squeezed off a round... [and] the figure tripped and went down." When his fellow infantryman Haywood asked how many people Burke had shot, the narrator replied, "Who's counting?" Another soldier said that it looked like a "papa-san," and Burke replied, appropriately for the situation: "It wasn't your papa."

And in a few minutes (6), heavy fire from the trees knocks down Haywood, right next to Burke. "Haywood was dead, as dead as any dead man I had seen... And I thought that if I hadn't shot at the papa-san, then Haywood would be alive. It should have been me," Burke continued, "since I shot at the papa-san, since I felt dead already, it should have been me."

Civil rights, African-Americans and Vietnam: In hindsight, the soldiers in Vietnam were only doing what their military leaders, what their government had told them it was okay to do, and that is: if you're not sure whether the Vietnamese person out there in the rice paddies is the enemy or not, shoot to kill. Ask questions later. The Vietnam war, now universally acknowledged as an enormous moral and strategic disaster for the United States, was a chaotic, maddening, terribly dangerous place for American soldiers to be. For Black soldiers, who were keenly aware of the injustices still existing for African-Americans back in "the states," there was some brutal unfairness about their role in Vietnam. According to an article in the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (Coffey, 1998), Dr. Martin Luther King called the war "A white man's war, a black man's fight."

There was unquestionably much validity in King's statement: Although African-American soldiers "made up less than 10% of American men in arms and about 13% of the U.S. population between 1961 and 1966," Coffey writes, those soldiers accounted for "almost 20% of all combat-related deaths" in Vietnam during those years. In the year 1965, Coffey continues, Black soldiers represented "almost one-fourth of the Army's killed in action."

Civil rights? Justice? We're talking the fact that Black citizens back in America were fighting for the right to vote, the right to ride anywhere they wanted on buses, to sit at lunch counters, to gain admission to the great colleges and universities, to be given fair employment opportunities; and meanwhile Black soldiers were used as canon fodder in Southeast Asia to justify President Lyndon Johnson's blatant error of judgment (fighting a jungle war with WWII training) and anti-communist obsessions; how about civil rights and justice for all Americans?

Meanwhile, the proportion of African-American soldiers in 1968 in Vietnam was "roughly 12% of Army and Marine" units, but Black troops "frequently contributed half the men in front-line combat units," Coffey asserts; and those front line units were "rifle squads and fire teams"; in other words, these were men sent out as scouts to be fired upon so the rest of the troops behind would know where the Viet Cong and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were located.

Racial tensions existed in Vietnam as well as in America, Coffey continues, and the 1968 assassination of Dr. King exacerbated those tensions during the war effort. In fact, at the Cam Ranh Bay Navy base, in 1968, "white sailors donned Ku Klux Klan-like outfits, burned crosses, and raised the Confederate flag," according to Coffey's article. Elsewhere, a riot broke out among jailed African-American troops at the U.S. Army stockade in Long Binh, Vietnam, which resulted in the death of one white soldier and the wounding of several others, Coffey explains.

An article in the Oxford Companion to American Military History (Butler, 1999) reports that between the years 1965-1969, when Blacks represented about 12.6% of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, "the percentage of black combat fatalities in that period was a staggering 14.9%..."

Meanwhile, Grooms' book jumps back in time from Vietnam to when Butler was a little boy growing up in Birmingham (37-40); he and his sister are in a "whites only" park, looking for frog eggs, when confronted by a white man who demanded that Butler admit he was "black."

What color are you, Walter?" he asked. And when Walter used several other words but "black" to describe himself, the man said, "I told you not to get smart with me. Do you want me to kick your Negro ass into next week?" "I'm black," he finally stated. "That's right," the man said, "You are black. Black as tar. A little black Sambo.... [and] this park is for white children... [so] don't you bring your black ass back in here until the day your turn white."

This part of the story of the Jim Crow south during the 1950s offers a taste of the bigotry and isolation that African-American kids did battle with daily. Like the Vietnam scene earlier, when Butler was reminded that if the man is wearing black pajamas, it's open season on him, the man in the "whites only" park saw that Butler was black, and it was open season on the young boy innocently looking for frog eggs. It seemed too that the man in the park with the straw fedora was trying to decide whether or not to physically attack the boy, just as in the Vietnam scene, Butler was trying to make up his mind as to whether or not to squeeze the trigger and take the life of someone that may not have been an "enemy" at all.

Civil rights in 2005: An article in the New York Amsterdam News (Watson, 2005) points out a new report titled "Democracy Unrealized," which raises questions about justice and rights for all Americans. The report indicates that notwithstanding the U.S. Census data - 32% of American citizens are "minorities" - only 16% of the "key appointed policy positions in state governments" were assigned to minorities (Latinos and African-Americans) as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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