SEGREGATED SOLDIERS: Military Training at Historically Black Colleges in the Jim Crow South. By Marcus S. Cox. Louisiana State University Press. 280 pages. $42.95.
Military service presented an especial conundrum for African-Americans who came of age during the 1960s.
On one hand, the armed forces were arguably the nation’s most integrated institutions. They offered unrivaled opportunities for financial security and education. Nowhere else did so many blacks supervise whites. African-American males could validate their manhood and lay claim to full citizenship. Examples abound of veterans who used the skills they had gained to press for equal rights in the civilian world.
On the other hand, donning a uniform meant subordinating oneself to an entity that was frequently used to subjugate people of color overseas. Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War. Reports arose that blacks there were being killed in disproportionate numbers. Programs like Project 100,000, which was ostensibly designed to give draftees with low test scores the chance to enjoy the benefits of military service, came under suspicion as a conspiracy to use minorities as cannon fodder.
Young men of the time thus faced difficult choices. Historians, too, have grappled with how to make sense of this quandary. Most of them have concentrated on how various parts of the armed forces have interacted with civilian society.
Marcus Cox takes an opposite approach. In “Segregated Soldiers,” he examines how historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) engaged with military values and organizations. He uses Southern University in Louisiana as a case study. This choice seems counterintuitive at first because unlike other HBCUs such as South Carolina State, the school did not have a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program until after World War II. His decision to use Southern, however, permits him an external angle of analysis.
Cox explains how black educators built upon a military tradition that existed since Emancipation. African-Americans fought in the Civil War and joined militia units during Reconstruction. As early as 1868, students at HBCUs were wearing uniforms and marching in formations. The Morrill Act of 1890 gave added impetus in this direction by requiring land grant colleges to include the teaching of tactics in the curriculum. Southern University was founded in 1879, but it fell under this law.
In 1919, the War Department established senior ROTC programs at eleven HBCUs. Although Southern University was not among these — and although Jim Crow persisted in the armed forces — support for the military remained high. During World War II, the Louisiana school participated in federal programs designed to enhance the technical skills of civilian blacks working in defense industries. University President Felton Clark encouraged faculty, staff and students to purchase war bonds. He also campaigned for the War Department to add an ROTC department.
The latter effort bore fruit when the Army established a program at Southern University in 1948, the same year that President Truman ordered integration of the ranks.
Participation in the first two years of ROTC was made mandatory for all male students. Many of them completed the final two years to earn commissions as officers. Cadet activities received favorable coverage in the college newspaper.
The Pershing Rifles became an important part of social life as did the annual military ball. Female students competed for the title of ROTC Queen. Military training was so popular that women organized their own drill team.
The mid-century unity that prevailed at Southern began to crack during the 1960s as the civil rights movement gained momentum and as American involvement escalated in Southeast Asia. President Clark was forced to decide between expelling 18 students who had been arrested for protesting or else losing state funding for the school. He chose the former. Opposition grew against compulsory ROTC and ended only when Louisiana dropped the requirement statewide in 1969. Campus unrest reached a climax in November 1972 when a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot two young men.
Despite this turmoil, and despite the trend among many white schools to eliminate ROTC, the number of such programs grew at HBCUs during the early 1970s. They included one in South Carolina at Benedict College. In Louisiana, Southern University added a Naval ROTC department.
The author uses this narrative to highlight a tradition of military service among African-Americans that transcended quotidian politics. He draws upon documents from the National Archives; papers from Southern University; and interviews with former administrators, professors, and students. Cox has the further advantage of being an alumnus of Southern and a professor at The Citadel.
South Carolinians will possibly be disappointed that the author does not discuss ROTC at Orangeburg or the killings there in 1968, but they can find information on those subjects elsewhere.
“Segregated Soldiers” adds new dimensions to the story of HBCUs and the unique relationship that exists between blacks and the military.
Reviewer Andrew Myers is a professor of American studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate.