By Bernard Garnett August 28, 1969 (JET Magazine) courtesy of Harold Bell
“Next year. when I complete my present hitch, I’m not going to re-enlist. I’m giving up the Army because there’s too much racism.”
This sentiment–common among young black servicemen–was voiced in Washington, DC, by Earl K. Bell a disgruntled 28 year old Army staff sergeant who led a nearly explosive civil rights protest in Nuremberg, West Germany, last spring. The tall, robust, 250-pound veteran of eight years was denouncing the military, fully aware that such an action could lead to severe disciplinary action.
That same week, S/Sgt. Bell’s 30-year-old brother, Harold K. Bell, was at the White House exchanging pleasantries with President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State William P. Rogers, for whom he caddied as a youngster at suburban Washington’s Burning Tree Golf Course (Jet Magazine July 31). The re-union led to a Presidential appointment.
With their seemingly contrasting outlooks, Harold and Earl shared the same poverty-ridden backgrounds. The four Bell brothers (including Alfred, now 31, a tire salesman, and William, 20, a Marine Corps Private/First-class) grew up without a father in a DC low-income housing project. Still youngsters when their mother was on welfare, they grew up on the black ghetto’s proverbial “dead-end street”.
A turn of fate changed Harold’s life in the mid-1950s, after embarking on a 20-mile journey to Burning Tree, seeking part-time employment “to get some food money.”With other inner-city black men, he served as a Caddy for Washington VIPs, but his favorite was then Vice-President Nixon, who frequented the links with Attorney General William Rogers. “Mr. Nixon took a personal interest in me,” the muscular 6-foot-2, 185-pounder recalls. ‘I would ride back with them to the MD/DC line, this allowed me to catch my bus back to my NE housing project. During the ride the Vice-President and I to my surprise would talk sports, but he put heavy importance on my education.’
A high school football, baseball and basketball star, Harold Bell would win an athletic scholarship to Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. He left college in 1963 to chase his dreams to play in the NFL, but he came up short. He returned home to take a position with the United Planning Organization (a community self-help organization) as a Neighborhood worker.
Meanwhile, Earl Bell–like many blacks sought to escape the lack of opportunities in civilian life through a military career. He enlisted in 1961, served two tours of duty in Germany. He was the Army’s heavyweight boxing champion in 1963. Earl was also a table tennis champion and first string fullback on the Army Football team. He served as platoon sergeant in Nuremberg from 1966 until his overseas tour ended last month.
It was not long before he detected racial bias in promotions and in disciplinary actions as it related to black troops. He told Jet, “Blacks who dared to speak out were labeled Troublemakers, and sympathetic whites were branded nigger lovers, and were disciplined as badly as blacks if they violated any rules”. Worse still, Bell said, ‘Black officers, apparently protecting their positions, did little to correct inequities’.
Three years ago, Bell tried unsuccessfully to have segregated off-base housing in Nuremberg declared off-limits, but he was rebuffed. He complained to Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) and the Pentagon. Finally, he obtained adequate housing for his family, but the struggle for equality never ended.
On May 30, S/Sgt. Bell’s relentless drive reached a climax at at a segregated discotheque (The Cage) in downtown Nuremberg. Black servicemen had been refused admission previously, he led 35 militant troops in a march that almost ended in bloodshed, particularly when U. S. Army Military Police (mostly white) were rushed to the scene. Bell on leave in Washington before beginning a one-year stint as a supply instructor at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia said, “I was the only peaceful man in downtown Nuremberg, everyone else wanted to fight. I kept saying, ‘Be cool’ on that night the black soldiers were not worried about going to jail or about their military records. They also cared less about getting into the discotheque, all they wanted to do was straighten the white man out.”
S/Sgt. Bell’s perfect service record was marred a month later while umpiring a softball game. He drew a $30 fine for identifying himself to a white lieutenant as “Mr. Bell.” Insisting that normal military courtesy regulations are waived during athletic competitions. Bell claimed the lieutenant– a grandstand spectator who joined an argument between the umpire and two players on the field–was out of order and the citation was no more than his white superiors seizing a opportunity to retaliate for the night club incident. ‘If my tour of duty had not been over, he said, I would have stayed and fought the case’.
Open and vocal allegations of racism no longer are unusual among black servicemen. Rep. Diggs, who said he had received thousands of complaints from all branches of service during his 14 years on Capitol Hill. He recently disclosed plans to investigate the July 20th Camp Lejeune, NC racial incident that resulted in the death of one white Marine and injury to 14 others (Jet August 14). The acting Defense Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, L. Howard Bennett, said his office has probed numerous allegations of racism, though the policy of not identifying troops by race has hampered investigations.
Meanwhile, black militancy increases. A number of blacks have risked punitive action rather than exert force against blacks in ghetto riots, and others are punished for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Black troops from Ft. Belvoir–in civilian clothing–were among the anti-war demonstrators who marred President Nixon’s inauguration last January. Last year, the Navy created a special staff to handle race relations, and Marine top brass in Washington have been sent directives to all base commanding officers supporting young black recruits’ rights to wear neatly groomed Afro hair styles. Plus, reliable reports from the Pentagon indicate that black re-enlistments have dwindled considerably in the last few years.
S/Sgt. Bell notes from his Army experiences, the young black man of today grew up listening to Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and he is not going to accept the old white racist attitude. He is willing to suffer the consequences by telling them to go to hell. Bell adds, that with doors opening in civilian life , the young black man is finding it less advantageous to join a racist Army.
The late Sgt. Earl K. Bell became a Military Policeman (MP) and returned home to become a DC cop to make his community a safer place. He rose to the rank of Sergeant only to face the same racism he thought he had left behind in Germany. My older brother Alfred joined the U. S. Marshall service and they both encountered “The Thin Blue Line and Code of Silence” use to stunt their growth in law-enforcement. Today “The Establishment” is using that same military and flag as a camouflage to stunt the growth of black athletes in the NFL. Its rather ironic in 1969 in the above story my brother Earl recognized, “Blacks who dared to speak out were labeled Troublemakers, and sympathetic whites were branded nigger lovers, and were disciplined as badly as blacks if they violated any rules. Worse still, Black officers, apparently protecting their positions, did little to correct inequities” In 2017 forty-eight years later the exact same thing can be said of today’s superstar athletes and media personalities across the board. Today there is a very thin line between ‘COURAGE and a Coward’!
“War and racism are not the answers for only love can conquer hate.” Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’