The U.S. military has been the largest single employer of blacks, a speaker said.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Many black Americans have viewed military service as a way out of poverty, but often they've been disillusioned by their military experience, an expert in black history told an audience at Youngstown State University.
"During and since Vietnam, blacks have been disproportionately represented in the armed forces and among veterans. By the 1980s, black soldiers comprised 20 percent of U.S. armed forces -- a higher percentage than the population overall," said Kimberley L. Phillips, associate professor of history and American studies at the College of William and Mary. Several dozen people attended her presentation Thursday at YSU's Kilcawley Center.
"Given African-Americans' historically marginal position in the U.S., this continuous and visible presence has been both remarkable and ironic. Uncle Sam's military has been the largest single employer of black folks, and, in particular, black men. Today, 'the Army of one' has a black face. You only need to see the commercials," she said.
"African-Americans disproportionately joined the military because of the lack of economic opportunities in their communities. At the same time, African-Americans were overrepresented on the battlefields," Phillips said.
Duties: Historically, black soldiers were often placed in the most dangerous military positions, and the military "was intensely segregated through the late 1950s," she said.
The black view of the military was expressed in popular music by artists such as Jimi Hendrix, who served as an Army paratrooper during the 1960s and whose music reflected an anti-violence theme, Phillips said.
By the 1960s and early 1970s, Langston Hughes, David Parks, Marvin Gaye, Muhammad Ali, Dick Gregory, Jimmy Cliff and Clarence Major "expressed complex and critical understandings of race, war and militarization," she said.
'Working-class army': Much of Phillips' presentation focused on the Vietnam War era, during which she said the Selective Service system, which drafted men into the Army, "created a working-class army."
In many cases, the Vietnam-era military failed to offer job training or educational skills that would be beneficial in civilian life, she said. Those who were socially or economically privileged were able to get medical exemptions or attend college and receive student deferments of the draft, she added.
"As jobs became scarcer, especially in northern cities, black and Hispanic men joined the military at disproportionate rates," she said. "Unable to attend college, or in many cases, complete high school, and pushed out of employment viewed as critical to the war, these men volunteered. Many of these men saw the military as an opportunity," she explained.