ESSAY: American Slavery, and the Confederate Flag, Part Four
“The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion…Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not…Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it?
— Daniel Webster, December 9, 1814 House of Representatives Address
Almost exactly one hundred years after the conclusion of the bloody and divisive American Civil War, the U.S. government was ramping up yet another war effort, this time in a country on the other side of the globe: Vietnam.
Both sides in the Civil War had used military conscription — the draft — to fill out their armies, although men drafted could provide substitutes, and until mid-1864 could even avoid service by paying commutation money.
Some facts about Civil War conscription, from Wikipedia:
Many eligible men pooled their money to cover the cost of any one of them drafted. Families used the substitute provision to select which member should go into the army and which would stay home. Of the 168,649 men procured for the Union Army through the draft, 117,986 were substitutes, leaving only 50,663 who had their personal services conscripted.
There was much evasion and overt resistance to the draft; the New York City draft riots were in direct response to involuntary conscription and were the first large-scale resistance against the draft in the United States.
At the start of World War I, the U.S. government had set a target of 1 million volunteers. Only 73,000 men signed up. This failure brought about the Selective Service Act of 1917, through which 3 million men were forced into military service. Typically, local draft boards made an effort to draft the poorest whites and blacks, considering them the most expendable. Southern farmers, politically opposed to foreign wars and outraged by the drafting of their workforce, actively protested the World War I draft.
Conscription continued during World War II (10 million men inducted and force to serve) and during the Korean War (1.5 million men inducted and forced to serve).
In 1965, America found itself in the midst of two great struggles. A struggle for civil rights… and a growing war in Vietnam.
Black and white activists were marching together in the Deep South and clashing with police and white supremacists, in an effort to win civil rights — the right to vote, to hold property, to equality of educational opportunities, to equal treatment under the law in general, to simply walk unmolested on a city street — for the millions of blacks living in the South.
One of the key leaders of the civil rights movement was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here are a few excerpts from a sermon he delivered on April 30, 1967 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“There is… a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken, as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor, so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube…
“Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem…
“So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together, for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room…
“I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ because Carlyle was right: ‘No lie can live forever’…
“With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” .. Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore.”
Earlier this month, the state legislature in South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from their Capitol grounds, in apparent reaction to a tragic shooting in a Charleston church, when a presumably deranged young man shot down nine black Christians in cold blood.
How many young men of color have been shot down in cold blood this year, in various cities all over America, by deranged men posing as officers of the law?