Who Killed Sammy Younge Jr.? SNCC, Vietnam, and the Fight for Racial Justice

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Who Killed Sammy Younge Jr.? SNCC, Vietnam, and the Fight for Racial Justice

Statement by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Vietnam War, issued three days after the murder of military veteran Sammy Younge Jr. on January 3, 1966

A 21-year-old who had lost a kidney while serving in the Navy, Sammy Younge Jr. was shot and killed when he attempted to use a whites-only restroom at a gas station in Macon County, Alabama. (Photo: Wikimedia)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of a powerful statement of protest against the Vietnam War. Issued by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the statement called out the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, which claimed to wage a war for democracy overseas at the same moment it was also waging war against those fighting for democracy in the United States:

We maintain that our country’s cry of “preserve freedom in the world” is a hypocritical mask, behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.

The SNCC statement asks: “[W]here is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?”

The murder of civil rights activist Sammy Younge Jr. on Jan. 3, 1966 prompted the release of the anti-war statement three days later. A 21-year-old who had lost a kidney while serving in the Navy, Younge was shot and killed when he attempted to use a whites-only restroom at a gas station in Macon County, Alabama.

SNCC saw Younge’s murder as a clear example of our government’s supposed fight for freedom abroad at the same time it denied that freedom to its Black citizens at home.

Issued more than a year before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous Riverside Church speech against the war, SNCC faced repercussions for its dissent. For example, the Georgia legislature denied SNCC spokesperson and elected state representative Julian Bond his seat because he stood by the statement. As he fought for his elected office, Bond wrote an educational comic book on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the connection between the struggles of the Vietnamese and the struggles of African Americans for self-determination and human rights.

Below is the full Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee statement, written by Gloria HouseJames FormanCharlie Cobb, and several others.

It highlights the often overlooked connections between the civil rights and the anti-war movements. At a time of growing activism against racial injustice at home, and seemingly endless wars abroad, the Zinn Education Project believes that this statement is especially timely.

— Zinn Education Project

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Statement on Vietnam
January 6, 1966

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has a right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on any issue when it sees fit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee now states its opposition to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam on these grounds:

We believe the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia, and in the United States itself.

We, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have been involved in the black peoples’ struggle for liberation and self-determination in this country for the past five years. Our work, particularly in the South, has taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens, and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders.

We ourselves have often been victims of violence and confinement executed by United States governmental officials. We recall the numerous persons who have been murdered in the South because of their efforts to secure their civil and human rights, and whose murderers have been allowed to escape penalty for their crimes.

The murder of Samuel Younge in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam, for both Younge and the Vietnamese sought, and are seeking, to secure the rights guaranteed them by law. In each case, the United States government bears a great part of the responsibility for these deaths.

Samuel Younge was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The United States is no respecter of persons or law when such persons or laws run counter to its needs or desires.

We recall the indifference, suspicion and outright hostility with which our reports of violence have been met in the past by government officials.

We know that for the most part, elections in this country, in the North as well as the South, are not free. We have seen that the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act have not yet been implemented with full federal power and sincerity.

We question, then, the ability and even the desire of the United States government to guarantee free elections abroad. We maintain that our country’s cry of “preserve freedom in the world” is a hypocritical mask, behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.

We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the “freedom” we find so false in this country.

We recoil with horror at the inconsistency of a supposedly “free” society where responsibility to freedom is equated with the responsibility to lend oneself to military aggression. We take note of the fact that 16% of the draftees from this country are Negroes called on to stifle the liberation of Vietnam, to preserve a “democracy” which does not exist for them at home.

We ask, where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?

We therefore encourage those Americans who prefer to use their energy in building democratic forms within this country. We believe that work in the civil rights movement and with other human relations organizations is a valid alternative to the draft. We urge all Americans to seek this alternative, knowing full well that it may cost them their lives—as painfully as in Vietnam.

The statement was reprinted from “Vietnam: Taking a Stand” on CRMvet.org

Zinn Education Project

The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country. Based on the lens of history highlighted in Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States, the website offers free, downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and reading level. The Zinn Education Project is coordinated by two non-profit organizations, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

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