History will remember Julian Bond as a hugely influential civil rights leader and activist. He died on Aug. 15, 2015, leaving behind a legacy as a Georgia politician, the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a chairman of the NAACP and advocate of social justice.
But some of our readers may be surprised to learn that Bond authored war comics. Or rather, anti-war comics.
The story begins in 1965. Bond was one of 11 African-Americans elected to the Georgia state House of Representatives after Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which opened voter registration to black citizens.
But on Jan. 10, 1966, Georgia state representatives voted 184–12 not to seat Bond because of his public opposition to the Vietnam war. A year later, he teamed up with illustrator T.G. Lewis to produce an indie comic simply titled Vietnam, laying out his reasons for opposing the war.
By the 1960s, the U.S. military had become racially integrated. But while African-Americans served and excelled in the military, they did so for a country where many laws and politicians actively suppressed their rights as citizens.
Bond’s Vietnam begins with a list of black civil rights leaders, celebrities and organizations who opposed the war in Vietnam, from Rev. Martin Luther King to Muhammad Ali. It was written as a call to action for blacks to exercise their voting rights, elect leaders opposed to the war and to focus American policy on domestic issues. Bond uses the words of protesters and leaders alike.
“Why are we always first citizens on the battlefield but second class citizens at home?” one protester asks. Another declares, “We should fight for free elections in Mississippi and Alabama, not in Viet Nam.” The black-and-white art is stark and affecting.
Bond quotes Johnson, when as a senator he opposed supporting the French in Indochina. Johnson had said that sending troops would be “sending American G.I.’s … on a bloodletting spree perpetuating colonialism and the white man’s exploitation of Asia.”
Bond cites American military leaders Douglas MacArthur, Maxwell Taylor, Matthew Ridgeway and Omar Bradley who voiced concerns about fighting land wars in Asia.
He also recounts the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese struggle against French and Japanese occupiers. He likens the Vietnamese communists to American patriots who fought the British, arguing that they too fought as guerrillas in the bush and often used brutal methods to gain independence.
But it’s a very selective history. It paints a picture of the war that in retrospect seems painfully naïve in huge ways.
When discussing the founding of the National Liberation Front, Bond writes “some people here called it the ‘Viet Cong’ the way some people who don’t like Negroes call us ‘niggers.’” In fact, the term first appeared in South Vietnamese newspapers in 1956 as a contraction of Việt Nam Cộng-sản — Communist Vietnamese. It was a very Vietnamese term coined by anti-communist Vietnamese nationalists.
The comic expounds on the Saigon government’s lurid corruption and human rights abuses, and paints the Viet Cong as heroes fighting for the poor. Bond suggests that the communists wanted nothing more than free and open elections and independence.
Though that was indeed the stated agenda of many communist leaders, the Hanoi regime ruthlessly repressed dissent and persecuted religious minorities. The North Vietnamese invasion after America’s departure had a very bloody and tragic epilogue.
When communist forces finally seized Saigon, they celebrated their victory with violent purges, the establishment of a one-party state and the mass imprisonment of “reactionaries.” Many Vietnamese languished in re-education camps for decades. Thousands of refugees fled to America over the years, many risking their lives on the open sea for any chance to escape.
Many Vietnamese — some whom still fly the South Vietnamese flag — remained haunted by memories of the war as they tried to build new lives abroad. The Vietnam War was a complicated event. Simple explanations by both its defenders and detractors have long hampered our ability to truly explore its varied complexities.
But Bond’s comic is a useful and valuable snapshot of a moment in time that needs to be understood. It is excellently done, and was written at a time when Johnson — who was elected in no small part on his pledge to wage a “war on poverty” in America — was increasingly devoting his time to an unpopular war in Vietnam.
For those embroiled in the struggle for racial equality in America, the battlefields of Southeast Asia seemed worlds away. To them, they were fighting a war of their own, where Klansmen terrorized and murdered activists who wanted change.
The same year Bond published Vietnam, King gave his famous “Casualties of the War in Vietnam” speech. “Many of our senators and congressmen vote joyously to appropriate billions of dollars for war in Vietnam,” King told his followers. “And these same senators and congressmen vote loudly against a Fair Housing Bill to make it possible for a Negro veteran of Vietnam to purchase a decent home.”
Bond’s Vietnam is a quick read [follow the link] and a valuable artifact of the civil rights movement of yesterday. It also gives us perspective on the ongoing civil rights struggles of today.