In 1969, The Military Thought It Had Eliminated Racism In Its Ranks. Then Troops Began Rioting
Speaker 1: 00:00 On a hot summer night in 1969 while other troops were fighting in Vietnam, dozens of marines at one u s base were fighting each other. A riot accomplish you, North Carolina 50 years ago. This summer was the first in a string of major racial incidents in the military and it led to massive reforms in the way the armed forces dealt with race. Jay Price of the American homefront project has this look back Speaker 2: 00:26 for anyone who visits the calm, orderly campus une today. The atmosphere back then sounds almost unimaginable. Here's an August, 1969 report from NBC News Correspondent, Robert Garages. Speaker 3: 00:38 The conflict on the base itself has reached the point where even Vietnam veterans fear walking at night, especially racially in Mexico, patrols have been set up to prevent further violence. Speaker 2: 00:48 Retired Massachusetts ironworker Robert Denote whose white was a young marine stationed at Camp Lajune. Then he and friends had been at a bar on base watching the moon landing on TV. Speaker 4: 00:59 The four or five of us walking back from the list of Man's club and about 40 black marines came around the corner and all hell broke loose, so to speak. Speaker 2: 01:09 One of the men with him was badly beaten. Speaker 4: 01:11 He got knocked down in the living room, stomped out of them. Speaker 2: 01:14 Half a dozen attacks took place that night as groups of rioters roamed the base. A 20 year old white corporal named Edward Bankston was beaten to death for years beforehand. Racial tension had been rising across the military. Black troops were no happier than their white counterparts of being drafted and also faced institutionalized racism in the military. Former drill Sergeant Willie Robertson of Clayton North Carolina says, Black Marines face demeaning treatment from white troops. Speaker 5: 01:43 April call you, it wouldn't call your private rob. He might say, hey, split up. Come here and split up. And I'm like, who's Cleo? I had no idea what he was talking about, but uh, the gas from up north, you know, they knew what it was and he, what'd he say? They call it on you eat weird. Speaker 2: 01:57 Robertson was badly wounded in Vietnam and had been sent back to Lajune to recuperate. He was there when the rioting broke out, but didn't hear about it until later. It didn't surprise him given the tensions among black marines. Speaker 5: 02:10 Most of them was only Asia and most of the stuff happening shortly. Right after Martin Luther King got killed, they just took it out on whites because there was a white man that killed most of the king Speaker 2: 02:19 history. Professor James West Hider of the University of Cincinnati. Claremont is the author of fighting on two fronts, a book on African American troops during the Vietnam War. He says, black troops everywhere were on the same hair. Trigger Lagoon is really the first major racial gang fight in the military. After that, you see it in other places. West Hyder says early in the war, African Americans often saw the military in a positive light as a place where they had a chance of a good career, but with younger draftees, less tolerant of racism that began to change. One of the turning points appears to be the assassination of Dr. King and the reaction of a lot of whites in Vietnam and throughout the u s military establishment helped exacerbate this at Cameron Bay. Whites made clan uniforms and parade with the confederate flag when they heard the news. The lagoon riot caught military leaders off guard. Speaker 2: 03:18 The surface has had been desegregated for years and West Hider says military leaders had no idea institutionalized racism remained a problem. If you look at the Department of the army's official report in 1968 they actually bragged that they had eliminated racism from the armed forces, so they did not assume that they were causing their own problem. Changes were slow, but eventually the Pentagon addressed racial disparities in the military justice system and a tackled another issue. The low number of black officers and senior enlisted leaders. The military also began to mandate race relations training and West Hider says it pressured career troops to fall in line with the new thinking. One thing about the armed forces. They can't change the way you think, but they certainly can change the way you act. And actually they did a pretty darn good job of it, but he notes that problems with white supremacists in the military have surfaced again in recent months, even half a century later, race relations in the military as in the civilian world, remain a work in progress. This is Jay price reporting. Speaker 1: 04:23 This story was produced by the American Home Front project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Speaker 6: 04:42 [inaudible].