On September 10, 1965, General Gordon Baker, Jr., a young radical who would go on to play a fundamental role in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, marched into his local induction center in Detroit. Fervently opposed to the war, he had already leafleted the city, calling on fifty thousand African Americans to swarm the center that day to oppose the draft, racism, and the war in Vietnam. This was just weeks after Watts burned. Only about eight demonstrators showed up, but the Army still wanted to play it safe, and Baker was sent home as a “security risk.”
In addition to organizing the demonstration, which marked one of the first moments in the militant struggle against the draft during the Vietnam War, Baker sent his local draft board a fiery letter denouncing not simply the war, but the entire global system. As his letter shows, his refusal to serve in Vietnam emerged not from any moral criticism, but from a principled internationalism, which was one of the defining characteristics of the black radical politics of the 1960s and 1970s, from Harry Haywood to Malcolm X, Queen Mother Audley Moore to Robert F. Williams, and from the Revolutionary Action Movement to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The black struggle at home, he argued, was an integral part of anti-colonial revolutions abroad: African Americans lived the same colonial experience, struggled against the same imperialist enemy, and held the same political aspirations for full self-determination.
Indeed, the spring 1967 issue of Soulbook, the radical journal that published Baker’s letter back in 1965, would later call the black community an “internal Vietnam,” effectively arguing that one of the best ways to help the Vietnamese would not only be to resist the draft, or even to travel abroad to join other national liberation struggles – as General Baker suggested in his conclusion, or as the Black Panther Party would later offer to the Vietnamese. The highest form of internationalism, rather, would be to make revolution at home, in the belly of the beast. This is the meaning of Baker’s powerful conclusion that he would be more than happy to serve if the call went out to liberate “Harlem, New York, to free 12th Street here in Detroit, and all the other 12th streets around the country.”
Today, as a new wave of struggles unfolds both at home and abroad, activists continue to affirm the international dimensions of their movements. One need only mention the close connection between anti-racist movements in the United States and Palestine. Recall how last summer Palestinians offered Ferguson activists advice about how to combat tear gas, in the same way, for example, that in the 1960s the Revolutionary Action Movement noted how the tear gas deployed in Vietnam was first tested in their own communities. Activists representing Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, and other groups even travelled to Palestine in January 2015. Today’s struggles are certainly distinct, but activists recognize how they resonate with one another, forming the basis for unity in struggle. The historical legacy of black revolutionary politics, to which General Baker’s powerful letter gives voice, offers us precisely this potential for a revolutionary universalism that goes beyond borders, closed identities, and essentialisms.
— Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
This letter is in regards to a notice sent to me, General Gordon Baker, Jr., requesting my appearance before an examining station to determine my fitness for military service.
How could you have the nerve knowing that I am a black man living under the scope and influence of America’s racist, decadent society??? You did not ask me if I had any morals, principles, or basic human values by which to live. Yet, you ask if I am qualified. QUALIFIED FOR WHAT, might I ask? What does being “Qualified” mean: qualified to serve in the US Army? … To be further brainwashed into the insidious notion of defending freedom”?
You stand before me with the dried blood of Patrice Lumumba on your hands, the blood of defenseless Panamanian students, shot down by U.S. marines; the blood of my black brothers in Angola and South Africa who are being tortured by the Portuguese and South African whites (whom you resolutely support) respectively; the dead people of Japan, Korea, and now Vietnam, in Asia, the blood of Medgar Evers, six Birmingham babies, the blood of one million Algerians slaughtered by the French (whom you supported); the fresh blood of ten thousand Congolese patriots dead from your ruthless rape and plunder of the Congo – the blood of defenseless women and children burned in villages from Napalm jelly bombs … With all of this blood of my non-white brothers dripping from your fangs, you have the damned AUDACITY to ask me if I am “qualified.” White man; listen to me for I am talking to you!
I AM A MAN OF PRINCIPLES AND VALUES: principles of justice and national liberation, self-determination, and respect for national sovereignty. Yet you ask me if I am “physically fit” to go to Asia, Africa, and Latin America to fight my oppressed brothers (who are completely and resolutely within their just rights to free their fatherland from foreign domination). You ask me if I am qualified to join an army of FOOLS, ASSASSINS, and MORAL DELINQUENTS who are not worthy of being called men! You want me to defend the riches reaped from the super-exploitation of the darker races of mankind by a few white, rich, super-monopolists who control the most vast empire that has ever existed in man’s one million years of History – all in the name of “Freedom”!
Why, here in the heart of America, 22 million black people are suffering unsurmounted toil: exploited economically by every form of business – from monopolists to petty hustlers; completely suppressed politically; deprived of their social and cultural heritage.
But all men of principle are fighting men … MY FIGHT IS FOR FREEDOM: UHURU, LIBERTAD, HALAUGA, and HARAMBEE!
THEREFORE: when the call is made to free South Africa; when the call is made to liberate Latin America from the United Fruit Co., Kaiser and Alcoa Aluminum Co., and from Standard Oil; when the call is made to jail the exploiting Brahmins in India in order to destroy the Caste System; when the call is made to free the black delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina; when the call is made to free Harlem, New York, to free 12th Street here in Detroit and all the other 12th streets around the country… Yes, when these calls are made, send for me, for these shall be historic struggles in which it shall be an everlasting honor and pleasure for me to serve…
This letter was published as “Letter to Draft Board 100, Wayne County, Detroit, Michigan,” in Soulbook: the quarterly journal of revolutionary afroamerica 2, no. 2 (June-July 1965), 133-34.