Blacks were not welcome in this country's military until 1862, when the Union Army reluctantly acknowledged that their help was needed to win the Civil War. But black regiments were segregated and usually relegated to menial tasks rather than combat, in a pattern that continued through the Korean War.
A three-part history of blacks in the military, starting tonight at 8 on Channel 26, quietly points out that it wasn't until the war in Vietnam that blacks were fully integrated into the U.S. services--just in time for the national disillusionment with the military as a whole and the career of soldiering in particular.
The first part of the series, "The Different Drummer: Blacks in the Military," presents an overview of black participation in the military from the Civil War to Vietnam, with still photographs, rare film footage and interviews with active and retired soldiers. Subsequent segments focus on "The Troops" and on those few who have made it to the top ranks. Perhaps echoing the stiff propriety of most of the military's major black spokesmen (and one woman, Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson, who heads the Army Nurse Corps), the filmmakers have adopted an academic, almost impersonal tone, which proves to be the production's major flaw.
Certainly this is not a story without heartbreak, drama and passion. In World War I, blacks were not allowed to fight in France under the American flag, but were "loaned" to the French. They were not allowed to be buried in certain cemeteries, they were restricted to duty as mess stewards and laborers, and they were denied, with few exceptions, the opportunity to become officers.
Although the first black was admitted to West Point in 1870, he was expelled in his fourth year after he hit a fellow cadet who called him by a racial epithet. Another one was kicked out in 1882, despite appeals from President Chester A. Arthur, after being accused of tying himself to his bed and mutilating his own ear and face to avoid competition with whites.
The last black to graduate in the 19th century was Charles Young, who was denied a command post during the Spanish-American war for being "physically unfit." He rode a horse 500 miles from Ohio to Washington to prove that he wasn't, to no avail. No blacks graduated between Young and Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in 1936.
Yet blacks persisted in trying to fight for their country and to prove, by the sheer ability that the military demands, that they could hold their own. The social ramifications were immense, particularly after World War II when thousands of black soldiers returned to the U.S., having risked their lives for democracy, increasingly unwilling to take a back seat in the national pursuit of the American dream. "War has sometimes been easier to face than the perils of civilian life," says the narrator in Part 3.
But aside from a passing reference to this upheaval, "A Different Drummer" ignores the sociological aspect of its subject matter. It also fails to solicit response or comment from the white military establishment, which could have added another dimension to a film that too often sounds like a lecture interspersed with war stories. Nor are more than a few of the intriguing personal stories of determination and bravery pursued, and one is left wondering what became of these people.
In 1860, of the 4.4 million blacks in the country, 90 percent were slaves. When the Civil War began in 1861, many tried to enlist with the Union, but were rebuffed. From their perspective, it was a war to end slavery, and they fought, guerrilla-style, until the Union thought fit to take advantage of them and formed two all-black regiments. They were commanded by whites, of course, but by the end of the war blacks had fought in every major battle; served as spies, scouts, sailors and nurses; and, 190,000 strong, made up about 10 percent of the Union Army. They also began to become professional soldiers, and four black regiments were added to the regular Army.
They fought in the Spanish-American war under Theodore Roosevelt, as well as in World War I, surviving a period of extraordinary harassment culminating in the infamous Brownsville incident of 1906, after which 167 black soldiers were discharged, and a confrontation with racist whites in Houston that resulted in 19 black soldiers being hanged and 41 sentenced to life in prison.
But of the 200,000 black soldiers who were on active duty in World War I, 90 percent were assigned to labor or "plantation" battalions. By 1939, there were only 3,900 blacks in the Army. As soon as war was declared, 2.5 million registered for the draft, and women joined in large numbers as well. Gradually they made inroads in the Jim Crow military, became Marines, pilots and officers, and won medals for battle heroics. In World War II, 500,000 blacks served overseas.
Twenty-five percent of the men killed or wounded in Vietnam were black. Once again, the filmmakers choose the survey approach rather than examining any implications of the draft during that time, when the system of deferments allowed the middle class to avoid service in far greater proportion than disadvantaged minorities. Overall, the unstated message of the three programs is that of Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., a no-nonsense soldier who says brusquely: "There is a way to get something done."