The Untold Story of the Black Marines Charged With Mutiny at Sea

Historians in the News
tags: racism, military history, Vietnam War, Marine Corps, US Navy, African American veterans

One evening in late August 1972, as the American tank-landing ship U.S.S. Sumter was steaming off the coast of Vietnam, a Marine onboard dropped the needle on the turntable in front of him, sending music to the loudspeakers bolted to the bulkheads in the cavernous spaces where hundreds of sailors and Marines slept and hung out. Some members of the crew were not ready for what they heard. “Sun, up down. On the corner, uptown. I turn around and hear the sound. A voice is talking about who’s gonna die next. Cause the white man’s got a God complex.”

Though nobody knew it at the moment, that song was about to set off a series of events that would leave three Black Marines facing charges of mutiny and the possibility of execution or lengthy imprisonment. Others were at risk of being thrown out of the Marine Corps with discharges that would maim their job prospects in civilian America for the rest of their lives. They were caught up in events that were not only about race but also about structural racism; not just a matter of individuals and personalities but of a U.S. military establishment that treated people of color differently from white service members — starting with recruitment and induction, through combat deployments, right on through the charges and punishments that arose when conflicts boiled over.

The Marine spinning records that day was Pfc. Alexander Jenkins Jr., a 19-year-old from Newport News, Va., whose outgoing personality had earned him a turn as the ship’s D.J. During tedious weeks at sea, music was one way to pass the time, but while Black Marines listened to songs by white artists with no complaints, some white service members were not so open in their tastes. Jenkins quickly found himself under verbal attack from white sergeants and officers — part of a campaign of harassment and poor treatment that included mess cooks intentionally handing him and his friends cold and inedible food, surprise uniform inspections and capricious punishments from noncommissioned officers. Eventually, it escalated to Black and white Marines physically fighting each other on a ship at sea.

Jenkins kept playing the newest records and tapes he could find by Black artists, many of which reflected the antiwar and Black-liberation movements happening at home, alongside country and western albums and hits by the Beatles. “I was playing ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye, and I was playing ‘Bring the Boys Home’ by Freda Payne,” Jenkins recalls. “But playing ‘White Man’s Got a God Complex’ by the Last Poets really set the white guys off.”

Jenkins remembers being pulled into a small room on the ship and questioned by a group of higher-ranking white Marines about the Harlem-based hip-hop pioneers’ spoken-word song, which touched on poverty, prostitution, drugs, the military-industrial complex, white supremacy and the killings of Native Americans and Blacks. They accused Jenkins of playing music that would incite a riot. “If you don’t have a God complex, then this doesn’t apply to you, now does it?” Jenkins told them. “But if you do have a God complex, then you’ve got to listen,” he added. A white Marine captain jumped out of his chair so forcefully that it flipped over. “You think you’re so smart, don’t you?” the Marine screamed in Jenkins’s face. “I’m sorry, sir. I really don’t understand,” Jenkins countered. “It’s a damn record, OK? It’s got a nice beat.” Jenkins was incensed, but he decided against pushing things much further. “I didn’t want to get shot without a trial,” he recalled. Despite Jenkins’s attempt to keep tensions from escalating, relations between white and Black Marines aboard the Sumter were about to get much worse.

Read entire article at The New York Times

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