Black soldiers—men and women—served in the Vietnam War for many of the same reasons their parents and grandparents served in earlier wars. They were patriots, and they wanted to demonstrate their citizenship and promote civil rights at home.
About 275,000 African Americans served in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972; more than 7,200 died there. After 1967 more and more black service members endorsed Black Power as a critique of the war itself. As veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, they wondered why they should fight for a country that denied them rights and brutalized many of their kin. They questioned the disproportionate number of black casualties and dangerous wartime assignments for black soldiers. And they were discouraged by the lack of battlefield promotions and decorations.
Black service members in Vietnam developed the dap, a combination of hand and body gestures as a nonverbal form of communication. The dap could be as simple as tapping fists and shaking hands or as complex as dozens of gestures with the hands punctuated by slapping chests. Whatever the elements, the dap—an acronym for “dignity and pride”—was a symbol of solidarity and survival, an expression of black consciousness and a commitment to look after each other on the battlefield and in camp.
Another symbol of Black Power was the black power salute, a clenched fist raised high overhead, made famous by Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City. The clenched fist salute first appeared as an assertion of revolutionary solidary in 1848 France and was resurrected in the 1930s as the Republican counterpoint to the open-palmed Roman salute of the fascist Nationalist forces led by dictator Francisco Franco. Military leaders were so concerned with the symbolism of both the dap and the black power salute that they were banned in many areas where tensions ran high between black and white service members.
Still, it is impossible to misinterpret the symbols embroidered on the Vietnam Tour Jacket. The clenched fist even includes a bracelet made of boot laces. This was a symbol of the Mau Mau, a Black Nationalist organization of soldiers in Vietnam. The group took its name from the revolutionary group opposed to British colonial rule in Kenya during the 1950s. Black Power advocates in Vietnam found inspiration for symbols of liberation from around the diaspora.
Photograph of American soldiers at a mess tent in Vietnam
Tommie Smith and John Carlos protest with the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics
Vietnam tour jacket with Black Power embroidery
Vietnam tour jacket with Black power embroidery
Photograph of two American soldiers sitting on a jeep in Vietnam
Photograph of two soldiers in Vietnam, circa 1967
Photograph of four American soldiers in Vietnam
Camp Legacy: Recognizing Service and Sacrifice
From May 11-13, visit a historical walkway on the National Mall featuring exhibits, a military demonstration area and a rally point to learn more about Vietnam veterans, families, citizens, allies and others during the Vietnam War period.