By Michael Huebner -- The Birmingham News
October 11, 2009
Exhibit blends stories of Vietnam, black life
The turbulent 1960s, a time when the civil rights movement and
anti-war protests grabbed headlines alongside the war itself, is the
focus of a multimedia exhibit coming Tuesday to the Birmingham Civil
"Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era," details the
impact of the Vietnam War on African-American soldiers and their home
communities through posters, photographs, drawings, war artifacts,
videos and music. It has traveled to museums in Pittsburgh, Chicago,
Dallas, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., and has been seen by 230,000 people.
Among the topics covered by the nearly 200 artifacts on loan from the
National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago are the draft, the
role of women, and the impact of the war on black power at home and
abroad. Audio stops recall anthems such as James Brown's "Say It Loud
(I'm Black and Proud)," Marvin Gay's "What's Going On," and the
Shirelles' "Soldier Boy."
Birmingham native Michael Flournoy is prominently featured in the
introductory film and audio stops, and has contributed a number of
artifacts. A graduate of Parker High School, Flournoy attended
Alabama A & M, where he became an activist with the Congress of
Racial Equality. After being arrested during a voter registration
drive in Louisiana, he was notified -- while still in jail -- that he
"I was 26½ years old, about five months from not beling eligible for
the draft, and Vietnam was just gearing up," recalled Flournoy, now a
psychological counselor at the Greater McKeesport Veterans Center,
near Pittsburgh. "I worked with several airborne units in Vietnam.
The guys who were in the service with me were 18 and 19 years old and
they used to talk to me like I was ready for a rocking chair. But
that gave me a bit of respect, too."
Although racial animosity did not often boil to the surface, there
was a disturbing undercurrent, especially in the front lines.
"I knew it existed, but it was nothing I was personally aware of
because I was in an airborne unit, which is very small,
well-disciplined and well-trained," Flournoy said. "There were units
that had violent confrontations. In some line units that were engaged
in combat, it was not covert. In other units in the rear, we ran
across situations every now and then."
But it was no secret that Flournoy had come out of the civil rights movement.
"That made the first sergeant suspicious," he said. "He didn't really
like me. I twisted his head because I became the top soldier. He
backed off after that."
Although he served two years without advancing to private first
class, he eventually became a staff sergeant.
"Michael's story fits into one of the questions I asked in the
developing 'Soul Soldiers,'" said Samuel W. Black, who curated the
exhibit and wrote a companion book with the same title. "Was the
draft -- and the war -- used much like a weapon against the civil
rights movement? I really wanted to find a veteran who had that experience."
TELLING OUR OWN STORY
Black, curator of African-American collections at the Heinz History
Center in Pittsburgh, raises several contradictions in the exhibit,
chiefly, the reasons the United States went to war in the first place.
"We were fighting a war that was publicized as a war to stop the
spread of communism, at the same denying democratic rights -- civil
rights -- here in the United States."
The exhibition's earliest reference is with President Harry Truman
desegregating the military in 1948, and proceeds to the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the murder of Army
Reserves officer and World War II veteran Lemuel Penn at the hands of
the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Opposition to the war by Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., and protests on college campuses such as Kent State
University and Jackson State College, where protesters had been
killed, are also addressed.
"The protests, which once were civil right protests, became anti-war
protests on black college campuses," said Black. "We try to look at
all things, not just those in civil rights organizations, but what
was taking place at colleges and communities as well."
Flournoy, who serves on the board of a military museum in Pittsburgh,
believes it is essential that the exhibition's story be told.
"I always thought the popular media had almost excluded
African-Americans from Vietnam, like they did in World Wars 1 and 2.
At Bunker Hill, we were there. My father died of wounds he received
in Belgium, in the Ardennes. An elderly white veteran pilot told me
last year that the Tuskeegee Airmen were the best secrets the army
ever kept, but he hadn't known they were black pilots. That's how
they had us separated. We're telling our own story now."
What: "Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era."
When: Tuesday through Dec. 31.
Tickets: $3-$11. Jefferson County residents under age 17, free. Call
328-9696 or go to
Where: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. North.
Opening reception: Tuesday, 6 p.m.
Michael Huebner is classical music and dance critic and fine arts
writer for The Birmingham News. E-mail him at email@example.com.