Those were the words of a song played by a Black Marine on board the American tank-landing ship U.S.S. Sumter as it was steaming off the coast of Vietnam in late August 1972. Pfc. Alexander Jenkins Jr., a 19-year-old from Newport News, Va., was the ship’s D.J. thanks to his outgoing personality. He would play music as one of the few sources of entertainment for all on board.
Black Marines had no qualms listening to songs by White artistes, but White Marines did have problems when it was the other way round. Jenkins soon found himself in trouble for playing songs by Black artistes. White sergeants and officers could not stand those songs, many of which talked about Black liberation, according to an article in The New York Times.
Racial tensions were high during this period and this arose from the civil rights movement at home. What made matters worse for Jenkins and eventually the rest of the Black Marines on board was when he played ‘White Man’s Got a God Complex’ by the Last Poets, the article said. The spoken word song centered on drugs, poverty, white supremacy and the killings of Blacks and Native Americans.
Jenkins was questioned by his White superiors over the song. They instantly accused him of playing songs that would incite a riot. Jenkins wanted to fight back but he didn’t want to get shot without a trial so he didn’t, he recalled in an interview. All the same, tensions rose on the ship after he was reprimanded, leading to what would be days of fights between Black and White Marines onboard the Sumter.
Already, Black Marines were being harassed by White officers for minor transgressions related to their uniforms or hair length. Inside the Navy at the time, racial tensions were high as Black sailors were usually assigned to the ship’s most inferior jobs while being harassed and mistreated. Some of the fights that broke out on the Sumter after Jenkins was scolded were started by Whites, others by Blacks. However, Marine leaders decided to put all the blame on Jenkins and two other Black Marines — Pfc. Roy L. Barnwell and Lance Cpl. James S. Blackwell, the article in The New York Times said. The three would find themselves facing charges of mutiny and threats of execution.
The New York Times said that after Jenkins was warned not to ever play the songs by the Last Poets, Black Marines onboard the Sumter sent an informal complaint to the highest-ranking Marine officer on board, Capt. John B. Krueger, saying that they were being denied the right to play their own music. The Black Marines were hoping to have a formal meeting with their battalion commander afterward, but they were denied that meeting, increasing tensions on board the ship.
Later, in one of the fights on the ship, Jenkins, Barnwell and Blackwell were arrested, alongside six other Marines. They were put on a helicopter which put them ashore in Vietnam. There, Jenkins was accused by a colonel of either being a communist or a part of the Black power movement. At the end of the day, Jenkins, Barnwell and Blackwell were charged with mutiny, the first time since the Civil War that American sailors or Marines had been charged with mutiny at sea, The New York Times article quoted sources as saying.
The three Black Marines, who became known as the “Sumter Three” in the newspapers that covered their case, were also charged with various counts of assault, riot and resisting arrest. The three got a lawyer from the National Conference of Black Lawyers, but the lawyer didn’t show up after Marine officials lied to him that all charges against Jenkins, Barnwell and Blackwell had been dropped.
The three had to turn to a free legal clinic in Koza, outside of Kadena Air Base in Japan for their case. Thankfully, lawyers there helped them. After several months, the charges against them were dropped as the prosecutor came under pressure to resolve the case. The charges were dropped in exchange for the three accepting unfavorable administrative separations in lieu of courts-martial, as stated by the article in The New York Times.
The three subsequently received less than fully honorable discharges and struggled in life when they got home as they suffered depression and had to live with post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the Sumter Three, Jenkins, who lost a lot of jobs either due to racial bias or the fact that his employers knew about his past, is the only one still alive. Blackwell died in 1994 of an aneurysm while Barnwell died in 2001, in complications from AIDS.
Jenkins, a married man with a daughter, said a piece of advice from an uncle, a Korean War combat vet, was what saved him after he returned home from Japan. “I was mad as hell, angry at the world then,” Jenkins said, according to The New York Times article. “He drove it into me that if the cops stop you, that’s their chance to mess you up. It’s almost like coming to America as a foreigner: You have to learn the rules as a Black man to survive. You have to know what to do and what not to do.”
Records show that between July to November 1972, there were more than 300 race-related incidents at major Marine Corps installations. Today, even though the military has put in place certain measures to deal with racial disparities within its ranks, its justice system still discriminates against Black service members, diminishing cohesiveness and morale.