Letter to the Local Draft Board (1965)

From The Crusader 2, no. 3 (March 1965), 1.
From The Cru­sad­er 2, no. 3 (March 1965), 1.

Intro­duc­tion

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

Gen­tle­men:

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…

Vencer­e­mos!

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.

Author of the article

was an autoworker, radical activist, and co-founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.