A (Black Power) military salute

This undated image obtained from Twitter on Saturday, May 7, 2016 shows 16 black, female cadets in uniform with their fists raised while posing for a photograph at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The U.S. Military Academy has launched an inquiry into the image that has spurred questions about whether the gesture violates military restrictions on political activity. (Obtained from Twitter via AP)

In a 1969 survey, 56 percent of African-American soldiers serving in Vietnam said they used the so-called Black Power salute. For some blacks, the raised-fist gesture signaled their opposition to a "white man's war" in Asia. Others were protesting racial discrimination within the military, where blacks made up a large fraction of combat troops but only a tiny percentage of officers.

When 16 black female cadets at West Point raised their fists in a pre-graduation photo last week, it unleashed a torrent of controversy when it was posted on social media. Critics suspected that the women were expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which might violate the military's prohibition on political activity while in uniform. Defenders countered that the women were simply displaying strength in sisterhood, mimicking Beyoncé and other pop stars.


After an investigation, the military concluded, according to the Army Times, that it was an inappropriate, but not necessarily political act, which would have violated military rules. As one cadet told the Army Times, it was "a spur of the moment" pose with the intent to showcase the "awesome black women in our class."

And perhaps, I might add, the military itself, which has been a major source of black pride and achievement over the past half-century. The best way to see that is to look backward to the Vietnam era, when African-Americans were still second-class citizens in the American armed forces.


The problem began with the draft. Blacks were twice as likely to be conscripted into the military as whites, who benefited more frequently from student deferments. Nor could blacks expect a fair hearing from local draft boards, where only 1.5 percent of members in 1967 were African-American. In four Southern states, not a single African-American served on a draft board.

Once they entered the service, black soldiers were more likely to be assigned to menial tasks. They also faced habitual harassment from their white peers. In one platoon, white soldiers celebrated the 1968 murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by parading in makeshift Ku Klux Klan costumes and burning crosses.

Eager to rise in the ranks, blacks often volunteered for the most dangerous combat assignments. But their valor was rarely rewarded with promotions. Of 380 battalion commanders serving in Vietnam in 1967, only two were African-American.

No wonder so many blacks raised their voices — and their fists — in protest. Forming organizations with names like the Black Defense Group and the Malcolm X Association, African-American soldiers held rallies and published underground newspapers. They demanded the right to wear Afro hairstyles. They flew black flags from patrol boats and substituted black berets for regulation helmets.

And they often replaced the traditional military salute with the Black Power one. On a base in South Carolina, one soldier recalled, blacks frequently "gave the fist" to white officers as they drove by. The officers would stop, get out of their cars and demand a traditional salute. But after the officers drove away, the black soldiers would raise their fists once again.

After the war, the military took huge steps to fight racism in its ranks. Officers who exhibited bigoted behavior were relieved of their command, and every candidate for promotion was evaluated on "race-relations skill." It worked. Between 1976 and 2003, the percentage of black officers in the armed forces tripled.

There was change at the top, too. In 1977, Jimmy Carter appointed Clifford Alexander as the first black secretary of the Army. Twelve years later George H.W. Bush chose Colin Powell to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest-ranking military officer.

To be sure, African-Americans are still under-represented in military leadership. Just 10 percent of Army officers are black, as compared to 18 percent of enlistees. And in a 2009 study, over one-quarter of black and Hispanic Army officers reported experiencing racial discrimination in their current units.


Meanwhile, female soldiers face sexual violence as well as discrimination. In a survey completed in 2014, just before women were made eligible for combat roles, 85 percent of men in elite special forces units said they did not want to let women into their jobs.

That makes the accomplishments of the women in that West Point photo all the more compelling. They posed in traditional "Old Corps" gray uniforms, with sabers by their sides. And they raised a fist, not to protest the military, but to celebrate it — and themselves.

Jonathan Zimmerman ( teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of "Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know," which will be published in August by Oxford University Press.