“Heed the Call!”: Black Women, Anti-imperialism, and Black Anti-War Activism

Anti-war Protests in Harlem in 1967 (Credit: Savanah Cox via http://all-that-is-interesting.com)

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, discussions about anti-Vietnam War activism has come to the fore. The heavyweight champion’s claim that he had no “quarrel with them Viet-Cong” encapsulated the sentiments of many African-Americans, particularly Black Power activists whose politics included an anti-imperialist agenda, or a critique of America’s occupation, domination, and exploitation of Third World countries. Such activists created black-centered anti-war organizations designed to educate African Americans on the perils of supporting a war that oppressed indigenous peoples in Vietnam. One of the most far reaching and effective black anti-war groups was the National Black Anti-War Anti-Draft Union (NBAWADU), spearheaded by Gwendolyn (Gwen) Patton.

Gwen Patton

Patton, who was born in Detroit in 1943, moved to Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 16 to live with her great aunt. As a teenager, she was involved in the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization responsible for organizing the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Patton attended Tuskegee University, where she was the first female president of the student government association and a leader of student protest on campus. She also joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was a key member of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), which created the original Black Panther Party. When Black Power swept the nation in the late 1960s, Patton unequivocally supported it. She remarked that she did not see it as “divisive, but rather complementary. Black power demanded a strategy in which black people would transform the powerless black community into one that could exert its human potential to be an equal partner in the larger society.”1

Samuel Younge Jr.
Samuel Younge Jr.

Patton’s support of Black Power and leadership of the Tuskegee student body propelled her interest in anti-war activism. She witnessed firsthand how the “the draft for the Vietnam War was ravaging its toll on male students” and how they faced perpetual racism at home if they were lucky enough to return from war. The disconnect between American democratic rhetoric and the treatment of black soldiers became both personally and painfully apparent for Patton when Sammy Younge Jr., a U.S. Navy veteran and Tuskegee student, was shot and killed near campus for trying to use a white restroom at a gas station. His murder escalated SNCC’s anti-war position and Patton’s anti-war activism.2

Patton helped found NBAWADU in 1968. In her writings and speeches, she explained her intellectual rationale for a Black Power anti-war group. They were twofold. First, she argued that Black Power activists needed an organization that mobilized at the intersection of racism and imperialism, or one that pinpointed how “the atrocities of imperialism and that of Vietnam [were] only a stepping stone to world exploitation by the American imperialists.” Second, she maintained that the white-led peace movement was content to end the war but leave racism and imperialism in tact. It was divisive and did nothing to change the “lot of black men who were being drafted because of a racist genocidal Vietnam War.”3 Although short-lived, NABWADU activists organized anti-war marches in Washington, D.C. Members also hosted an anti-war conference in 1968 that over 700 activists attended.4

As NBAWADU secretary, Patton spearheaded the group’s effort to highlight the effects of imperialism and war on black women. She published a pamphlet, “For US Women” in which she implored black women to think seriously about the interrelationship between birth control, American imperialism, and their reproductive self-determination. During the black power movement, many (male) activists argued that the U.S. government was using birth control to control minority populations. Patton concurred with anti-birth control advocates that the country was going to great pains to “exterminate” black Americans by shipping young black men off to war. However, she also insisted that birth control offered black women new avenues for economic and reproductive self-determination. Patton argued that a key component of black women’s anti-war activism should be developing a gender-specific, anti-imperialist reproductive rights stance that facilitated their full participation in black-centered, anti-war activism. In other articles, she explored similar themes including encouraging women to learn first aid in order to avoid relying on white health services and educating them on how they could “move to stop the system from drafting [their] sons.”5

Female Viet Cong Warrior c.1973. (Credit: https://weaponsandwarfare.com)

Far from having a quarrel with the Viet Cong, Patton and the other black women in NBAWADU idolized them. Radical periodicals and Third World presses brought news of Vietnamese women liberation fighters picking up guns and fighting on the front lines alongside men. The image of a Vietnamese woman, gun in hand, was a powerful antidote to black power activists who claimed that black women organizers were “emasculating black men.” Patton championed this model of woman at NBAWADU events, echoing claims that “a Vietnamese woman working in the rice paddies with a rifle on her back”  was “sexy” and encouraging black women to “play a definite role in the struggle” by emulating Vietnamese women freedom fighters.6

NBAWADU’s and, in particular Patton’s focus on women, serve as an important reminder of black people’s widespread disdain of the Vietnam War and black women’s pivotal role in the anti-war efforts that men like Muhammad Ali championed. Although they were not drafted or killed over seas, black women still acutely felt the affects of the war and mobilized against it. Moreover, women like Patton articulated the connections between imperialism, racism, patriarchy, and reproductive rights, cultivating Black Power’s anti-war arm and making it intersectional and more inclusive.

Sports figures like Ali, iconic images of women like Ieshia Evans standing up to a militarized police force, and the “Mothers of the Movement” at the Democratic National Convention are all connected through black people’s opposition to America’s global militarized domination of people of color. We should also see women like Patton, her gender-conscious anti-imperialism, and NBAWADU as a critical part of this continuous history of black anti-imperialist activism.

  1. Gwen Patton, “Born Freedom Fighter,” in Faith S. Holsaert et. al, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 572–575; 579.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Gwen Patton, “Black Militants and the War,” Student Mobilizer, January 1968, 1-2.
  4. Simon Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the 1960s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 144–145.
  5. “For US Women,” Folder: SNCC Women, Comstobox 22, Gwen Patton Collection, H. Council Trenholm State Community College, Montgomery, Alabama.
  6.  Gwen Patton, “The Role of Women in the Liberation Struggle,” Folder: Speeches, Comstobox 23, Patton Collection.
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Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.