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The Military Provides a Model for how Institutions can Address Racism

Efforts to reform the U.S. military in the 1960s and ’70s provide some lessons. Over 40 years ago, protests combined with pressure from a wide coalition of civilians, politicians and soldiers to push an institution to promote meaningful cultural change and to examine an unfair justice system. Change happened from vigilant activism, congressional support and a refusal to accept mere symbolism.

Even though African Americans have always served in the U.S. military during war, it was not until 1948 that segregated units were abandoned. But integration did not mean that discrimination and racism disappeared, and during the Vietnam War, racial tensions escalated. In the span of several weeks in October 1968, two African American majors in the Army resigned because of their assessment of racial discrimination in the military. Maj. Lavell Merritt called the military one of “the strongest citadels of racism on earth.” African American officer Maj. John B. Jones would later say that “the war [was] still in the barracks.”

Problems within the military mirrored broader social issues in the United States. But military institutions also had particular problems, notably a racially biased military justice system. African American soldiers pointed to the administration of “Article 15” punishments, which did not require judicial review. Officers had full discretion to punish soldiers with no oversight and without thorough investigations. African American soldiers received these nonjudicial punishments at much higher rates than their white counterparts, often with more severe consequences. This system paired with lower rates of promotion and a reluctance to recognize structural discrimination eventually prompted uprisings in 1971.

Of all the protests that year, the most severe was one at Fort McClellan, Ala., located outside the town notorious for being the site where white supremacists had bombed a bus full of Freedom Riders in 1961. Over the course of two weeks in November 1971, African American soldiers gathered to protest local bus drivers who had hurled racial slurs at them. But soon their grievances expanded to include practices within the military: unfair discipline practices, unequal rates of promotion and inaction of command when soldiers reported incidents of discrimination and abuse.

Fort McClellan command responded to mass gatherings with blanket arrests, resulting in military police detaining over 100 military service members. In the wake of the uprising, the commander blamed “troublemaking” militant soldiers, rather than the institution’s failure to address racism within the installation.

Read entire article at Washington Post