Chronicles of a Two-Front War: Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African American Press

Chronicles of a Two-Front War: Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African American Press

by Lawrence Allen Eldridge

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During the Vietnam War, young African Americans fought to protect the freedoms of Southeast Asians and died in disproportionate numbers compared to their white counterparts. Despite their sacrifices, black Americans were unable to secure equal rights at home, and because the importance of the war overshadowed the civil rights movement in the minds of politicians and the public, it seemed that further progress might never come.  For many African Americans, the bloodshed, loss, and disappointment of war became just another chapter in the history of the civil rights movement.  Lawrence Allen Eldridge explores this two-front war, showing how the African American press grappled with the Vietnam War and its impact on the struggle for civil rights.
Written in a clear narrative style, Chronicles of a Two-Front War is the first book to examine coverage of the Vietnam War by black news publications, from the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 to the final withdrawal of American ground forces in the spring of 1973 and the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975.

Eldridge reveals how the black press not only reported the war but also weighed its significance in the context of the civil rights movement.
The author researched seventeen African American newspapers, including the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the New Courier, and two magazines, Jet and Ebony.  He augmented the study with a rich array of primary sources—including interviews with black journalists and editors, oral history collections, the personal papers of key figures in the black press, and government documents, including those from the presidential libraries of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford—to trace the ups and downs of U.S. domestic and wartime policy especially as it related to the impact of the war on civil rights.

Eldridge examines not only the role of reporters during the war, but also those of editors, commentators, and cartoonists. Especially enlightening is the research drawn from extensive oral histories by prominent journalist Ethel Payne, the first African American woman to receive the title of war correspondent. She described a widespread practice in black papers of reworking material from major white papers without providing proper credit, as the demand for news swamped the small budgets and limited staffs of African American papers.  The author analyzes both the strengths of the black print media and the weaknesses in their coverage.

The black press ultimately viewed the Vietnam War through the lens of African American experience, blaming the war for crippling LBJ’s Great Society and the War on Poverty.  Despite its waning hopes for an improved life, the black press soldiered on.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826219398
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 01/30/2012
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lawrence Allen Eldridge is a freelance writer and author of The Gospel Text of Epiphanius of Salamis. He lives near Atlanta.

Read an Excerpt

Chronicles of a Two-Front War

Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African American Press
By Lawrence Allen Eldridge

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1939-8

Chapter One

Bringing the News Home

There is an important need for documenting the Negro soldier ... in the light of the civil rights struggle back home.—Ethel Payne to U.S. official in Vietnam, December 28, 1966

Vietnam swarmed with reporters. Newspaper correspondents began filing stories from the combat zone early in the war. A few, like David Halberstam of the New York Times, became journalistic superstars who wrote compelling pieces that began to define the Vietnam story for millions of readers and to deepen hostility toward the media within the Johnson administration. After the Tet Offensive became big news in early 1968, the number of journalists in the country swelled to more than six hundred from all over the world. Although no military censors systematically restricted the flow of information from the war zone to news outlets, as was the case in World War II, U.S. officials in Vietnam sought to manage and control the news that was reported. Public information officers representing the U.S. command in Saigon tried ceaselessly to shape the story of the war. Their daily briefings were so disconnected from reality that they came to be known among reporters as the "Five O'Clock Follies."

Among the horde of U.S. correspondents in Vietnam, few were African Americans. Despite more hiring of African Americans during the sixties, by 1970 only 5 percent of all reporters and photographers in the mainstream U.S. media were black. None of the black publications could afford to keep permanent news staffs in South Vietnam. To fill the gap various African American news publications sent reporters on temporary assignment to Vietnam to observe the war and file stories chronicling their impressions.

Ethel Payne, a prominent journalist at the Chicago Defender, arrived in Saigon on her first temporary assignment in Vietnam on Christmas Day 1966. Three days later she wrote a memo to Barry Zorthian, chief information officer at the U.S. embassy, to say what she intended to do in Vietnam and to elicit official cooperation. Her statement was an apt description of what other black journalists on assignment from African American news publications went to the war theater to do. She told Zorthian that her first purpose was "to try and give an adequate picture of why we are involved in Vietnam," particularly to inform "Negro communities." Payne's second stated goal was "to tell the full role of Negro soldiers in this conflict," focusing especially on "the extent of integration in the services."

She noted that other African American journalists who had visited Vietnam to report on the war were "in agreement" that they needed "more material and cooperation" from U.S. officers in the war zone, particularly in ferreting out information about individual blacks in the battle zone that would reveal their "assignments, acts of heroism[,]" and "overall performance." She lamented the absence of clear official documentation of the war-zone performance of black service people that had been reported by "other Negro correspondents." The requests of these war correspondents for detailed information about African Americans' service had often been fruitless, Payne reported, because military officials claimed racial statistics were not available from personnel records.

Payne later acknowledged that, although black service personnel hinted at their "nagging doubts about the legitimacy and morality of the war," she failed to focus on that aspect of the story. She even confessed that "maybe I was a little brainwashed myself" because she did not concentrate on elements of the Vietnam story that might have reflected badly on the official Washington line. "I've always regretted to this day that I didn't do what I felt was an adequate job in reporting on the immorality of the war," she told an interviewer in 1987. Her statement was a remarkably honest expression of what she regarded as a personal failure. It also sheds light on the pressures that at least one journalist felt, to emphasize the positive elements in the story of African American members of the U.S. military in Vietnam. Some of this restraint may have reflected her innate caution or may have been influenced by the editorial moderation that was typical of some black newspapers, including Payne's own Chicago Defender, when complete candor might have meant criticizing Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy even as he championed civil rights programs beneficial to African Americans.

Another African American journalist who traveled to Vietnam on temporary assignment for a black paper was Mike Davis of the Baltimore Afro-American. During his four-month hitch in the second half of 1967, Davis produced a staggering volume of material, often filling several pages in a given issue of his paper. The Afro-American further enriched its war coverage by securing the services of Conrad Clark, an experienced black newspaperman who was in Vietnam as a GI in the Fourth Infantry Division and serving out the balance of his military commitment. The beauty of the arrangement for the paper was that it got a steady stream of stories from Clark while the U.S. Army picked up the tab.

Payne's colleague at the Defender, Donald Mosby, also went to Vietnam on special assignment. He was sent to write a series on black soldiers in the war zone, after the newspaper received complaints from African American soldiers and some parents about the racist treatment of black GI's. Mosby's first report from Vietnam was published on May 6, 1968, barely a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a time of tumult in the United States and of rising racial tensions among the troops in Vietnam. Mosby's lead article was followed by a series of pieces that provided a frequently raw, acerbic perspective on the experiences of blacks in the military during the war.

Sometimes a chain of newspapers would send a correspondent to Vietnam to file stories that would be picked up by more than one paper in the group. Payne's articles which appeared frequently in the Chicago Defender also were picked up by other newspapers in the Sengstacke group. For example, after the New Courier joined the Sengstacke chain in 1966, it introduced Payne to its readers as a "Courier reporter."

The two preeminent African American newsmagazines also used firsthand accounts from Vietnam to enrich their coverage of the war. Jet magazine sent its Washington bureau chief, Simeon Booker, to Vietnam in July 1965, making him one of the first African American journalists from a black news organization to be sent to Vietnam during the early stages of the buildup of U.S. forces there. Booker went to South Vietnam for two weeks to provide "a firsthand glimpse of activities in the war-torn country." The cover of the August 19, 1965, issue of Jet promoted his series of pieces this way: "Special Report: Negro Heroes in the Vietnam War." The main piece emphasized the dangers, including to Booker himself, who came under sniper fire, and discussed casualties among black troops.

Even this early in the war, Booker's reporting conveyed a sense of the racial ambiguities of the war; both allies and foes in the exotic land were dark skinned and strangely alien. As riots erupted back home, even this early in the conflict, the Vietcong tried to exploit the racial tension in the United States and turn black and white GIs against each other with clumsy propaganda. According to Jet, the efforts went nowhere. Later Booker returned to Vietnam, this time with a photographer in tow, to hook up with several frontline combat units and provide more on-the-spot reporting.

Ebony magazine also published firsthand accounts from journalists in Vietnam. The culmination of the magazine's coverage of the Vietnam story occurred when it devoted its entire August 1968 issue to the story of black members of the U.S. military. Most of the articles dealt, directly or indirectly, with aspects of the African American experience in the Vietnam War, with much of the coverage based on reporting by black journalists who had visited the war zone.

Based on her experience in Vietnam on temporary assignment, Payne recommended to John Sengstacke, her boss, that a reporter from the black press be stationed in the battle zone. In her memo of March 30, 1967, she told Sengstacke she was "more convinced than ever," after visiting Vietnam, that "there should be a correspondent stationed over there on at least a quasi-permanent basis to concentrate on the Negro in the war." She suggested that the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), which Sengstacke had founded, "send a pool correspondent over to defray the cost" of providing individual black newspapers with access to frontline war reporting. Nothing came of the initiative.

As the last U.S. ground troops were leaving Vietnam in 1973, Sengstacke formally named Payne a war correspondent, the first African American woman to be given that designation. It was a belated gesture but a title she had earned during months of combat reporting in South Vietnam, even as she served as her newspaper's one-person Washington bureau.

All American journalists who visited South Vietnam to report on the war were given ground rules that had been laid down by the military. Among Payne's personal papers is a copy of a memo from the military press liaison brass addressed to "Media Representatives" that discusses the rules under which journalists and the service people with whom they interacted would operate in the gathering and dissemination of information. "The basic policy" of the U.S. information office in Vietnam, the memo announced, was "to provide media representatives maximum information consistent with requirements for security." The document went on to elaborate the customary rules distinguishing official and unofficial sources and how the media were to handle the attribution of information that was on the record, given on background only, or that was off the record entirely.

Like every reporter in Vietnam, journalists representing black publications expressed frustration at the frequent difficulty of extracting reliable information from tight-lipped military press officers, particularly at staged briefings. Black reporters groused about the logistical difficulties of getting around the combat zone. But they also found combat personnel in the field very open and informative and were able to put together well-documented pieces for their publications.

The black newspapers also maintained a lively stable of commentators and editorial writers who grappled with issues raised by the war and their impact on the interests of the African American community. Several good columnists were appearing regularly in black newspapers. Some were figures known primarily in a particular newspaper's region or city. Others were prominent figures—mostly African Americans—whose columns were syndicated broadly to black newspapers. The widely circulated columnists were as professionally disparate as the civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and the former baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Cartoons were also used frequently to comment on the war in Vietnam, providing an often wry, usually provocative and thoughtful, perspective on the conflict. Political cartoons in mainstream U.S. publications sharpened their political bite during the Vietnam conflict. According to Joshua Brown, "Only when the Vietnam War reached its height in the late 1960s did many political cartoonists emerge from their torpor to take the unprecedented step of criticizing U.S. government foreign policy during wartime." This irreverence, at times rising to the pitch of polemics, had been common among cartoonists in the black press well before the Vietnam War, including during wartime.

Pointedly critical cartoons directed at the nation's leaders had been a part of the black cartoonist's arsenal during foreign wars since World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson occasionally found himself ridiculed in them. For example, on July 19, 1917, the New York Age published a cartoon showing a group of blacks picketing the president with signs demanding an end to discrimination in the military and in civilian employment and challenging him to fulfill a promise made at the beginning of the war: "Absolute fair dealing" for black Americans. On March 23, 1918, the Chicago Defender ran a cartoon that showed a black nurse approaching the president about recruiting women to serve as Red Cross nurses. When the black woman says, "My brothers at the front desire my services," the president dismissively replies, "We can use your money—but not your services."

Half a century later, during the Vietnam War, the black press was even bolder about aiming its messages at power and claiming full rights of citizenship for all African Americans. This blunt message of entitlement was amplified by the war and grounded in the sacrifices black soldiers were making on the battlefields of Vietnam. The cartoonists in the black press were warriors with pens in the fight of African Americans for justice. The result was a remarkable body of work in the literature of black protest.

A few cartoonists stood out from their peers by developing particularly memorable characters and a signature style that inspired a new generation of African American cartoonists. Sam Milai, a veteran Courier cartoonist, won first prize in the Russwurm Awards of the NNPA in 1966 for a 1965 Memorial Day cartoon celebrating the black GI in Vietnam. Milai frequently drew cartoons commenting on aspects of the Vietnam War and its impact on the lives of black Americans.

The most celebrated of the black cartoonists was Ollie Wendell Harrington. According to the PBS Web site, he was "called the 'greatest' African-American cartoonist." He attended the Yale School of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design and worked for a number of black newspapers, including the New York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender. His most famous character was "Bootsie," who debuted in the Amsterdam News on December 28, 1935, and earned Harrington national recognition. During World War II, Harrington went to Europe as a war correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier. It was, he said, "a wonderful solution," because the alternative was to join the U.S. military, which would have meant "fighting in a racially segregated army." He moved to Europe for good after the war, finally settling in communist East Berlin in 1961. During the sixties Harrington once again sent Bootsie off to war to comment on Vietnam. Harrington died in Berlin in November 1995, having lived to see the Berlin Wall come down.

One of the most extensive portfolios of war cartoons in the black press appeared in the Defender, an iconic African American newspaper with a storied reputation as an influential force among black Americans. But even a small paper could nurture the talent of a skilled cartoonist whose work was imaginative yet who toiled in relative obscurity. Eleanor Ohman, cartoonist for the Sun-Reporter, was just such a talent. Her work appeared in the pages of the San Francisco Bay Area newspaper, which had a circulation of eight to nine thousand during the Vietnam era. Ohman joined the paper, which had been founded in 1944, when her boss, Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, a physician, became publisher several years later to keep the fledgling publication afloat. She had been his secretary and administrative assistant in his medical office, but also brought to the paper a knack for drawing and the cartoonist's ability to reduce public issues to captivating visual metaphors within a few square inches of newspaper space. Her editor and the paper's founder, Thomas C. Fleming, stated emphatically that Ohman's cartoons were the best to be found in the black press.

The publications also had the usual sections devoted to letters to the editor, which provided some of the sharpest opinions on the war, as well as other public opinion features; among the latter was the "Inquiring Photographer" in the Defender. Occasionally, letters to the editor took the form of poetry or contained a poem. Sometimes poems would be published in a special section, such as the "Poets' Nook" in the Afro-American. These sections were not permanent features but appeared occasionally, adding to the whimsy of the material. There was no confusing these poems with great literature, but they added a kind of sweetness to the dialog between the papers and their readers.

Since the black press served a relatively small readership, sometimes a small-town intimacy crept into the reporting. When the Afro-American's Mike Davis was sent to Vietnam for a four-month assignment, an editorial described his mission as being "to seek out husbands, sons, sweethearts and other relatives of AFRO readers and report on their impressions, activities and outlook on the controversial war on the other side of the world." The editorial then said: "In doing so, he will be perpetuating an AFRO tradition of bringing our readers a bit closer to their loved ones who have answered the call of duty." Once Mike Davis reached Vietnam, another editorial described how overwhelmed he had been by the reception from loyal readers who were serving in the combat zone. Then the editorial promised that "AFRO readers up and down the eastern seaboard can expect to look in the paper any day and see the pictures and stories about their hometown GIs serving in Vietnam."


Excerpted from Chronicles of a Two-Front War by Lawrence Allen Eldridge Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Bringing the News Home....................8
2. Vietnam and the Great Society: The Two-Front War....................18
3. Fueling the Anger: The Draft and Black Casualties....................45
4. African American Opposition to the War in Vietnam....................73
5. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Globalization of Black Protest....................94
6. "We're with You, Chief ": The Black Press and LBJ....................125
7. The Black Press and Vietnam in the Nixon Years....................156
8. Race Relations in an Integrated Military....................186
9. The Black Press and the Vietnam War....................206

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