Excerpt: War! What is it Good For?, by Kimberley L. Phillips

African Americans’ long campaign for “the right to fight” forced Harry Truman to issue his 1948 executive order calling for equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces. War! What is it Good For?: Black Freedom Struggles & the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq, by Kimberley L. Phillips, examines how blacks’ participation in the nation’s wars after Truman’s order and their protracted struggles for equal citizenship galvanized a vibrant antiwar activism that reshaped their struggles for freedom.

In the following excerpt from War! What Is It Good For?, Phillips describes the antiwar activism of Langston Hughes and Nina Simone (pp.228-231). We’ve added a YouTube video of Simone performing the song that Phillips discusses in the passage.

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When antiwar activists pressed him to denounce the Vietnam War in 1965, Langston Hughes refused. After deflecting accusations of procommunism in the previous decade, he feared any public statement against the war might disrupt his recent civil rights activities. His suspicions were not unfounded. Later that year, anticommunist protesters heckled him at a Kansas City lecture. At an appearance in Oakland, conservatives branded his newly published Pictorial History of the Negro as Communist propaganda and demanded that the local library remove its copies. Again, Hughes distanced himself from the charges, insisting, “I have never been a Communist, am not now a Communist, and don’t intend to be a Communist in my natural life.” The series of incidents reinforced Hughes’s public silence about Vietnam, but he did not participate when friends at a dinner party criticized the antiwar statements of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.[1]

Although Hughes declined to make public statements against the Vietnam War, his poetry and essays tied black rebellion in Watts and Chicago to anticolonial movements in South Africa and Saigon. Since 1960 he had read his work about colonial violence, poverty, segregation, and apartheid to crowds at jazz festivals. In these and other settings he delivered “impudent interjections” that anticipated the oppositional tone heard in later black antiwar performances.[2] For years critics claimed his poetry had grown careless and lacked complexity, but Hughes’s new work captured African Americans’ growing dissent about the Vietnam War draft that inducted young black men at twice the rate of whites.[3] Simple, the alter ego he created to urge blacks’ assent to World War II, agitated for black rebellions and dissent against America’s new war. “We have got to think up new ways of agitating,” said Simple, “because the old ways is worn out. Speech making is not enough. Marching is not enough. Martin Luther King is not enough.” Always prescient, Simple warned that blacks’ dissent against the poverty they faced in Watts and Harlem would be turned against the draft and the war. “The young Negroes is impatient. Now, if they have to go in a draft to Vietnam, who knows what is going to happen? The young Negroes is liable to say, ‘Gimme my gun right here in Harlem and Selma and Chicago and Cambridge, Maryland.'”[4]

After another summer of uprisings in northern cities, Hughes honed a poem that captured blacks’ outrage over the nation’s resistance to their calls for racial and economic justice and the draft’s inequities that disproportionately placed them in combat.

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages,
Send my son to Vietnam.
You give me second class houses, second class schools,
Do you think colored people are second class fools?[5]

Hughes immediately sent Nina Simone the poem, and she composed music, making it the collaboration they had sought since their appearances at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival.[6] With a political voice unloosed in “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone performed “The Backlash Blues” as an antiwar anthem in late 1966 in New York and Chicago; early the next year, she included the piece in her European performances.[7] By the time Simone recorded “The Backlash Blues” months later, the song’s tone and rhythm had become menacing. Onstage and in subsequent recordings, Simone snapped each word: “Second class houses, second class schools / Do you think all colored people are second class fools?” Simone’s cascade of treble chords and riotous tone sounded the subterranean rage from people compelled to war while the nation resisted their calls for full and equal citizenship.

“The Backlash Blues” tapped a hidden but deep vein of blacks’ resistances to their overrepresentation in the military draft, “police actions,” and wars since World War II. Since World War II, African Americans had resisted the nation’s wars and the draft. Simone and Hughes used the stage to foment blacks’ dissent toward the Vietnam War.[8] Their aural protests formed the leading edge of public protests launched by African Americans in the 1960s as they linked America’s suppression of their freedom struggles in the United States and their impressments into the military “as an armed gendarme” with the anticolonial struggles in Vietnam and elsewhere.[9]

Blacks who spoke out against American wars received fierce and immediate retaliation for stepping out of their “place” in American political discourse.[10] As large numbers of American troops arrived in Vietnam, the NAACP insisted that the integrated military remained the most successful of its civil rights gains. As blacks’ support for the war plummeted, some in the mainstream movement viewed agitation against the war as separate from the civil rights struggles. Others considered the war misguided and terrible, but they feared the antiwar movement might divert support for civil rights and wreak havoc on already strained relationships with the Johnson administration. As the administration repudiated prominent African Americans and activists who denounced the war, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., conservative civil rights leaders called any critique of American foreign policy a “serious tactical mistake.”[11]

Compelled to send their “sons to Vietnam,” increasing numbers of African Americans disagreed, and as civil rights activists organized for blacks’ voting and economic rights, they encountered southern and northern communities in rebellion against U.S. draft policies. These activists were soon galvanized by African Americans’ myriad protests against the draft and the war, including soldiers’ protests, which linked their everyday inequities and their significant presence in the military. For decades, black antiwar dissent had been relegated to the margins of civil rights discourse, but these communities soon challenged civil rights leaders and organizations to make critiques of the war integral to the movement for racial justice and black freedom.

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Excerpt from War! What is it Good For?: Black Freedom Struggles & the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq, by Kimberley L. Phillips. Copyright Β© 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Kimberley L. Phillips is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Read the recent feature on her in the New York Daily News.

  1. [1]Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. 2, 1941-1967, I Dream a World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), quote on 386, 417.
  2. [2]Langston Hughes, “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” in Montage of a Dream Deferred, in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 1994), 387; Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 124. See Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, where Hughes’s poems from the 1950s and 1960s are like dispatches from the anticolonial struggles from Harlem and Chicago to Brazzaville and Cape Town.
  3. [3]James Edward Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 27; L. Deckle McLean, “The Black Man and the Draft,”Ebony, August 1968, 61-66.
  4. [4]“Simple Solution to Vietnam War: Draft All Older White Men First,” Muhammad Speaks, August 20, 1965, 17. Hughes wrote this article before the Watts riot, which began on August 11, 1965.
  5. [5]First published in the Crisis (June 1967) and The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times(New York: Knopf, 1967). Panther included a series of critical poems about war. Nina Simone began performing the song in November 1966. See Robert Sherman, “Nina Simone Casts Her Moody Spells,” New York Times, November 23, 1966, 28.
  6. [6]This history is gleaned from the letters each wrote the other and Simone’s prefatory dedications to the “The Backlash Blues.” See letter from Langston Hughes to Nina Simone, January 26, 1965, box 147, folder 2724, series 1, personal correspondence, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
  7. [7]Ruth Feldstein, “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1350; Sherman, “Nina Simone Casts Her Moody Spells,” 28.
  8. [8]Nina Simone, “Backlash,” Protest Anthology (Artwork Media, 2008).
  9. [9]Civil Rights Congress, We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States against the Negro People (New York, 1951; reprint, New York: International Publishers, new ed., 1970), viii; on Hughes’s jazz performances, see Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, 124. For his controlled “outrage” in his responses to charges from black activists abroad that he “lacked militancy,” see Paule Marshall, Triangular Road: A Memoir (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 20-21.
  10. [10]Fred Powerledge, “Vietnam Issue Divides Leaders of Rights Groups,”New York Times, August 29, 1965, E4; “Viet Rebuke Stirs Storm,” Baltimore Afro-American, January 2, 1966, 14.
  11. [11]Celler Bids Rights Leaders Restrain Vietnam Criticisms,” New York Times, April 15, 1966, 60; John Herbers, “Rights Backers Fear a Backlash,” New York Times, September 21, 1966, 1; “NAACP Decries Stand of Dr. King on Vietnam,” New York Times, April 11, 1967, 1; “Dr. King’s Tragic Doctrine,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 15, 1967, 6.