In his new book, “Segregated Soldiers: Military Training at Historically Black Colleges in the Jim Crow South”, historian Marcus Cox argues that African Americans leveraged military service to claim their civil rights.
Cox is a Baton Rouge native and Southern University alum who now teaches at The Citadel in Charleston, SC.
He said serving in the military was central to the struggle for civil rights from the nation’s very beginnings, when the colonies did not have standing armies and so depended on Citizen soldiers. Cox said the idea was that if you were a solider you would receive citizenship rights.
"So for African-Americans and minorities and even immigrants, the ability to serve in the military or in a militia was very, very important socially and also politically because it literally legitimized you in society and it was supposed to offer you political, economic and social opportunities," said Cox.
But Cox said, in many cases, once the crisis was over people of color were prevented from joining the military. He said this is why military participation is at the core of the Civil Rights movement throughout American History.
"They [African Americans and minorities] used military service as a vehicle to prove to other Americans that they were worthy of citizenship rights," said Cox. "Many of our prominent Civil Rights leaders that I highlighted in the book are military veterans and they returned from their experience with the desire to want to lead their communities and address social inequities that they feel that they earned the right to have."
Cox said in order to reconcile the contradiction of fighting in a country where they were discriminated again, African Americans focused on personal gain and opportunities a career in the military provided them. He said this was especially evident during the Vietnam War era.
"Once after the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a lot of these institutional barriers of discrimination are sort of toppled then African Americans start to focus on their own benefits as it related to travel and educational opportunities and employment opportunities and the military was somewhat of an attractive opportunity for them," said Cox.
In the book, General Russel Honore’ wrote:
“When you had an opportunity to serve, you served. To me it was an opportunity life myself where I came from to a higher social economic class and put myself in the status of having a degree and being an officer in the US army. For me, that overshadowed the dichotomy of serving a nation that did not always appreciate your presence. I decided to be part of the solution and not to disengage society but rather engage.”
Cox said not much has changed in the way African Americans and minorities think about military service.
"That even though that you still hear of stories of sexual assault, racism, discrimination, the military still has a lot of value and there’s still a lot of benefit to joining the military," said Cox.
Author and history professor Marcus Cox will speak about his book Thursday, Nov. 14, at 4:00pm at Higgins Hall on Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus.