When I was a high school student in Frankfurt am Main, Germany during the early 1970s the student movement was at one of its peaks. Part of the reason for this was the Solidarity German students felt with African-Americans. At the same time, black GIs were expressing their revolutionary and racial consciousness, much to the dismay of military officials in Germany and the Pentagon. One of the major issues for the more radical of the GIs and students (along with a few of us so-called military dependents) was the case of Angela Davis and the Ramstein Two. The latter were two African-American Army vets who were organizing support for Angela Davis, who had been charged with murder in the case of Jonathan Jackson, the younger brother of Black Panther revolutionary George Jackson. According to the prosecutor, Davis’s gun had been used in the failed courtroom takeover implemented by the younger Jackson and was therefore an accomplice to the murders that ensued. The Ramstein Two were accosted by German police guarding a gate at Ramstein AFB and responded with force. They were arrested and charged with attempted murder. Their case was taken up by leftist German students, workers, radical American GIs and dependents and elements of the Black Panther Party. The episode was emblematic of both the treatment of African-Americans in Germany and the solidarity among elements of German society and the US civil rights movement.
It is this solidarity that the recently published book A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany by Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke examines. The title is more than a history. Höhn and Klimke provide a unique look at the US civil rights movement. Utilizing the experience of Blacks in the US military in post WW Two Germany, A Breath of Freedom highlights the role the military played in ending legalized apartheid while highlighting the actual nature of racism in US society.
Unlike the story told in the official narrative, where the military brass is presented as heroic in their pursuit of racial justice. Here, the military is taken to task for its institutional racism and for allowing individual officers and NCOs to use their positions to enforce their own prejudices. The author makes it clear that it was the civil rights movement and its members in the US and overseas that forced the military to change, not necessarily the good will of any officers. In fact, it was often those officers that prevented regulations from above regarding desegregation from being implemented. This was especially true during the period immediately after WW Two up into the early 1960s. Although the practice of ignoring racist actions by white officers and NCOs did not end once the civil rights movement in the United States began to score legal and legislative successes, it did diminish. Höhn and Klimke attribute this to a combination of the aforementioned cicil rights activism, a greater awareness of their rights among African-American service men and women and a slowly changing consciousness in those in command. In other words, an officer and NCO corps that had come primarily from the racist South was slowly being replaced with men whose outlook concerning racial relations was different. This isn’t to say that the latter group were anti-racist. However, they understood that their prejudices would not be openly tolerated during the course of their duties.
An interesting and relatively unknown chapter in the US civil rights movement are the visits by civil rights leaders to both West and East Germany. Martin Luther, King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Angela Davis and others were greeted warmly by Germans on both side of the Cold War border. According to the authors, official recognition of these visits differed markedly. King’s visit in 1964 found him speaking to tens of thousands in West Berlin in a tour sponsored by the Social Democratic mayor Willi Brandt (later Prime minister of West Germany), while his lectures in East Germany were confined to a large church and had no official sponsorship. However, as the 1960s continued and the struggle for black liberation intensified in the United States, it was the East German authorities that championed later visitors from that movement.
After Angela Davis was arrested in 1970 in the case mentioned earlier, Germans on both sides of the Cold War border organized popular campaigns agitating for her freedom. I recall attending a rally in Frankfurt am Main’s Opernplatz along with thousands of others. West German student radicals and other leftists sponsored a speaking tour that included Angela’s sister Fania that saw standing room only crowds at every stop. It was in East Germany, however, where support for Ms. Davis was overwhelming. East Germans from all walks of life–schoolchildren to top-ranking officials–joined in fundraising, support rallies and other campaigns geared towards winning freedom for Angela.
A Breath of Freedom is an important book. By telling the story of African American GIs sent as part of a military occupation designed to teach and instill democratic values in a nation that had recently been ruled by the Nazi party, the authors also tell the story of America’s own racist history and practices. This juxtaposition simultaneously highlights the difficult struggle by blacks and their allies against US racism–a struggle which was exacerbated by the experience of African-Americans that had served overseas and experienced a life where they weren’t judged primarily by the color of their skin. Impeccably researched and well written, the authors’ passion for the subject is what makes this book as good as it is.
For an affiliated website, please take a look at http://www.aacvr-germany.org/AACVR.ORG/
RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org