Black GIs and Germans found solidarity against fascism and racism | Visual Art | Indy Week
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Black GIs and Germans found solidarity against fascism and racism 

Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy at the Berlin Wall in West Berlin

Photo courtesy of Landesarchiv Berlin

Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy at the Berlin Wall in West Berlin

When roughly one million African-Americans enlisted and put their lives on the line to liberate Europe in World War II, they faced the same racism in the segregated military that they experienced back home. In fact, many found German soil more equitable and welcoming than in the States.

The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs and Germany, at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, is co-curated by Maria Höhn, a Vassar history professor, and Martin Klimke, a fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. In archival, military and newspaper images, the show tracks German connections to the civil rights movement through the rise of international awareness of America's Jim Crow laws in the interwar years, the affinity between anti-Nazi Germans and black GIs during and after the war, visits from John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. during the early 1960s and Angela Davis' student years in Frankfurt.

Framed together, two reproductions of newspaper cartoons establish the basis for the show. A February 1938 Amsterdam News cartoon titled "Such Inconsistency" depicts a lynched man in silhouette, pointed at by the torn headline "Save German Jews, U.S. Bids 29 nations" and the note "This from a country which refuses to pass laws to end this." A cartoon from The Philadelphia Tribune the following spring, titled "Another Klansman," shows Hitler holding a swastika overhead, while his shadow forms a Klansman brandishing a burning cross.

Many World War II photographs convey both the segregation of black soldiers who served and the crucial roles they played. In one exuberant 1945 shot titled "Corporal William E. Thomas and Private First Class Joseph Jackson on Easter Morning," the two soldiers flash Cheshire cat grins, crouching before a basket of bombs labeled "Easter eggs for Hitler" and holding one shell labeled "Happy Easter Adolph." The scene seems familiar, maybe from a war movie. But these were segregated liberators. John Wayne wouldn't be strolling up to share his Lucky Strikes.

Black soldiers had to sit behind German POWs at USO performances. No African-American World War II veteran received even a nomination for a Congressional Medal of Honor until the Army contracted Shaw University historians in 1993 to research the accomplishments of black soldiers. President Clinton eventually awarded medals—one to Vernon Baker, the last surviving veteran among the honorees, and six to other soldiers posthumously.

Uninterested in returning home to second-class citizenship, many black GIs stayed on in Germany after the war ended. Leisurely images show black soldiers and white Germans singing around a piano or drinking at a noncommissioned officers' club on the Ramstein Air Base. And as awareness grew of the civil rights movement's momentum back home, these images segue into sympathetic marches on the cobblestone streets of Frankfurt and Berlin.

Once the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, a divided Germany became the civil rights movement's foreign front. King's 1964 visit is well-documented in the show, and the preacher's voice (interspersed with a German translator's) echoes in the exhibition: "I'm happy that my parents chose to name me after the great reformer." A photo of King's visit to the wall provides a manifestation of his conscience. In striking visual symmetry, his lean away from the menacing cinderblock and tangled barbed wire matches the wall's sharp-perspective angle.

Following the images of West German memorial services for King after his 1968 assassination, the impatient tone of protest heats to anger. Angela Davis takes King's place in the photographs. After studying with social theorist Theodor Adorno in Frankfurt for two years, Davis returned to the States to teach at UCLA and to join the Black Power movement, but Germans didn't forget her. Students took to the streets with signs reading "Freiheit für Angela Davis!" to protest her 1970 arrest on murder charges. After she was acquitted in 1972, Davis appeared as a celebrity on both sides of the Berlin Wall.

The last section of the exhibition shows the political radicalization of both the black armed forces in Germany and the country's young leftists. Organizations like SNCC and the Black Panthers visited Germany and built relationships on and off military bases throughout the 1960s and '70s. The German groups they were rubbing shoulders with, such as the Red Army Faction, were likewise arming themselves, abandoning King-era nonviolent resistance in order to confront power with power.

A chaotic rush of punk-looking students with Black Panther flags are seen in a street action during 1969's "Anti-Imperialist Week" in Frankfurt. Another terrific low-angle photo shows SNCC representative Dale Smith with his arm around German student leader Rudi Dutschke, who later became an early leader of the German Greens, at the 1968 International Vietnam Conference in West Berlin, just before SNCC dropped "Nonviolent" from its name. The figures of Smith and Dutschke are united by a large star on the wall behind their heads bent together in conversation.

One treasure of this show is a glimpse at a few issues of Voice of the Lumpen, a collaborative underground newspaper between black GIs and German students. One 1970 front page tagline reads: "If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men then it is wrong for Amerikkka to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her." Another issue's masthead balances the radical with the practical while referring to a military regulation guaranteeing soldiers the freedom to possess and read whatever printed matter they chose: "This paper is legal but the PIGS will probably bust anyone caught reading it. So be cool!!! Check out AR 381-135(D) in case they do happen to vamp on you."

Eventually, both the NAACP and the Pentagon released major public reports about institutionalized racism in the military, provoking the development of affirmative action programs and policies against racial abuses throughout the military justice system. In 2009, the NAACP recognized this exhibition with a distinguished community service award.

Keep an eye on this exhibition space: In November, local artist (Luis) Franco will apply pop art irony to the themes of this current show. Manipulating advertising graphics of pop icons and "ethnic" food, Franco takes his fight to the front of personal identity in a corporatized world. If you don't want to wait that long, the Carrack Modern Art Gallery in Durham offers a preview of Franco's work over the last two weeks of September.

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