The Impact of Black Soldiers and Amherst College on the Civil Rights Movement

Submitted on Thursday, 3/1/2012, at 10:51 AM

Khary Polk, the Robert E. Keiter 1957 Postdoctoral Fellow and visiting assistant professor of black studies at Amherst completed his doctoral dissertation on the African-American soldier at New York University last summer and is currently adapting the dissertation into book form. We recently spoke with Polk about the upcoming work, which he said will examine “how discourses of race and sexuality intersected within the figure of the African American soldier in the 20th century, and how black soldiers, in particular, found senses of embattled agency through their military travels outside of the United States.”

Dr. Khary Polk
Dr. Khary Polk

Audio Extra: more observations from our discussion with Khary Polk

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Treatment of Black Soldiers in World War I

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The Importance of Colin Powell

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On the Military and Academia

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While the racial integration of the U.S. military is sometimes presented as an outcome of the civil rights movement, Polk argues that in many ways it was the black American soldier who fought on the front lines for equality, to bring home the freedom he was sworn to protect. Along the way in his research, Polk uncovered Amherst's connections to the civil rights movement in the military and beyond.

Q: Your father was in the Air Force. How has coming from a military family informed your research?

A: I started this project thinking, What did it mean for my family, before I was born, to be stationed in Spain? Once I was born, we moved to England, and then Okinawa. I've been interested in thinking about how movement contributes to a literature of African-Americans abroad and how the U.S. military has its own engine of Diaspora. The movement of black soldiers and black people in the United States has always been so surveilled and so restricted. My family's history informs how I think about the possibilities of freedom that many Americans exercise today.

Q: Do you think military life radicalized black soldiers in the 20th century?

A: One of the major themes that I identified has been how freedom is articulated through movement. During World War II, black soldiers were literally going all over the world. They're going to Southeast Asia, to India, to Europe, to the Caribbean. Even though many soldiers were still dealing with the prejudice of the U.S. military, being outside the boundary of the United States created a new sense of possibility that, I think, really changed the outlook of many African-Americans. When they returned to the United States, those perspectives infused their communities with a different sense of being.

Q: Tell us about the two Amherst College graduates that you discuss in your research.

A: I think the most notable … is Charles Hamilton Houston. He came to Amherst in 1911—I believe he may have been the only black student in his class—and graduated as one of six valedictorians in 1915. He decided to join up during World War I. He saw, and he was subject to, the kind of discrimination that black soldiers faced in France.

In many ways, it was that experience that led him to come back to the States and to go to law school. He went to Harvard, and he later became assistant dean at Howard University and their law school, and he himself was responsible for mentoring scores of African-American legal minds , probably the most notable being Thurgood Marshall [U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1967 to 1991]. [Houston and his protégés, such as Marshall, would lay the legal groundwork that would eventually make possible the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in public primary and secondary schools unconstitutional.]

Q: You mentioned a second Amherst graduate important in this history.

A: William Hastie [‘25] was very instrumental in advocating for African-American soldiers in World War II. I think that it's important that we don't forget these kinds of contributions from Amherst College graduates have gone on to truly change the shape of our world.

[Hastie graduated first in his class, magna cum laude. Like Houston, he would also later teach law at Howard University. He would eventually become the first African-American to serve as Governor of the United States Virgin Islands, as a federal judge and as a federal appellate judge.]

Q: What kind of impact did these black soldiers have on the world?

A: They inspired the people, and they themselves were also inspired. A group that was really important in that inspiration was the 369th Harlem Hell-fighters, which was a jazz band started by James Reese Europe… a notable black conductor in Harlem. … They are seen as bringing ragtime to France. They produced a rag version of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.. It took a number of measures before the French sailors knew what was being played and then everyone snapped to attention. In France, the people loved them so much.

Q: Did this movement of soldiers have an impact on blacks native to other countries?

A: I’m very interested in the kind of interactions that black soldiers had with French colonial soldiers from Africa. Just imagine what it meant for African-American soldiers to encounter these other people who were black but spoke another language. When they went back home to their respective countries, they became a radical element. Some scholars believe the anti-colonial movement actually begins with the drawdown during World War II. In the Belgian Congo they actually asked [black U.S. soldiers] to leave, because their presence was destabilizing the caste system there.

Dr. Khary Polk
Dr. Khary Polk

Q: So they were essentially on the front line of a P.R. campaign for civil rights?

A: Toward World War II and beyond, the presence of black [American] soldiers in other countries began to serve a diplomatic need. There was so much propaganda being tossed on both sides from the Axis and the Allies, and a sore spot diplomatically for America was the treatment of African-Americans at home. There was this notion of the Double V Campaign: victory against fascism abroad and at home.

The performance of black soldiers in the field really began to create the conditions for a greater ability for them to serve. But it turns the African-American soldier into a subject over whose meaning there's lots of negotiation and sometimes a fierce struggle. And often, in these moments, their voices are lost.

We learn from the experiences the black soldiers gained through international travel. What does it tell us about Diaspora? About the global and the local? About power? Civil rights have had this hidden connection to the U.S. military for such a long time. And it's been a fraught relationship.