At 10:40 p.m. on July 20, 1969, fifteen minutes prior to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic moonwalk, a race riot erupted at one of the nation’s biggest Marine Corps bases.
The violence at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune had been brewing for months, and ended at approximately eleven, minutes after Armstrong famously uttered, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The swift and brutal outburst was also fatal. Corporal Edward Bankston, a white, thrice-wounded Vietnam War veteran, had been walking home to his barracks when a brawl, said to be started when a black Marine wanted to cut in on a white Marine dancing with a black female reservist, spilled out of the 1st Battalion’s club. The twenty-year-old from Picayune, Mississippi, had his skull fractured by black Marines wielding clubs that had been formed from tree branches and broken broom handles. He died a week later. In total, fifteen white Marines were assaulted in six separate locations along a half-mile path between the club and the barracks. Two victims had stab wounds and a third Marine, a nineteen-year-old private from Roanoke, Alabama, was transferred to Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia, in extremely serious condition from head injuries. In interviews with investigators, the white Marines told investigators that they heard their assailants yelling, “Call us niggers now,” and, “We’re to going to mess up some beasts tonight.”
The riot led to a congressional investigation of the deteriorating interracial conditions at Camp Lejeune. The verbatim testimony and attendant documents contained in “Inquiry into the Disturbances at Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, N.C., on July 20, 1969” ran to more than twelve hundred pages. Some believed the military was in jeopardy of tearing itself apart, while others suspected the Black Panthers’ influence. General Michael P. Ryan, the new commander at Lejeune, said there were “indications” but “no tangible evidence” that black Marines charged in the beatings were members of the Black Panther party. At its height in 1968, the organization had only two thousand members, but its high profile in cities and its message of Black Nationalism led J. Edgar Hoover to declare them “one of the greatest threats to the nation’s internal security.” At Lejeune, the sight of black Marines with Afros exchanging black power salutes evoked an emotional response from older white officers. “This new breed of black marine needs to be identified to determine his attitudes and motivations,” the congressional report observed in a section called “the race problem.” It concluded that the racial “disturbances” were the product of a “few militant blacks who fanned the flames of racism.” Those black men, the report added about the night in question, were “obviously in a high state of excitement.”
Black Marines did not agree with the one-sided depiction of the brawl, telling reporters the white Marines that night were “up for it.” They also described more generally a divide personified by the dismal conditions stateside as black Vietnam veterans, counted on for heroic service abroad, returned to humiliating bigotry and repeated instances of military injustice. In the surrounding towns near the base, a billboard decorated with American flags read, “Welcome to Klan Country.” A black civilian who worked on the base as a barber told the New York Times the racial conditions were “worse than Mississippi.” A cross was burned on his lawn in response. The sheriff simply told him that it “looks like the Klan is riding again.”
Between January and August of 1969 there were 160 reported racial incidents at Lejeune (though numerous Marines, white and black, described the confrontations as constant. “The violence hits everybody and you start to get paranoid,” said a Marine at Lejeune. “All I want to do is get out and get away from it.”) One base military directive issued by a platoon leader in a pamphlet titled “Fostering Unit Pride and Esprit” after the riot advised white Marines to avoid calling their black counterparts the following: boy, spook, splib, negro, Uncle Tom, nigra, nigger, or colored. This remedial race-relations 101 was well intentioned but ineffective. A year earlier, in 1968, there were no arrests following the death of a black Marine beaten by two whites behind the same 1st Battalion club. More than forty black and Puerto Rican Marines were arrested following the July 20 riot.
“I hated to get off the plane,” said one black private in a September 1969 Life article, describing the dread occasioned by his return to the North Carolina base from the front-lines of Vietnam. “Out here you go to the washroom and it’s nigger this, nigger that all over the wall.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, such details were not included in the military’s official report.
America was visibly preoccupied by the drama playing out in space: 125 million in the United States watched the Apollo 11’s moon landing, the country’s most unimaginable and uplifting achievement. But the outbreak of racial hostilities at Lejeune was so dire and violent that it seemed to threaten the stability of the U.S. armed forces. Prior to the outbreak, Charles Evers, newly elected mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and NAACP Man of the Year in 1969, seemed to capture the resentful mood of many. He was one of the many notable leaders in American society asked to weigh the significance of man walking on the moon. “America needs to look at the Earth, not at space,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times.
Evers certainly wasn’t alone in his skepticism over the outrageous cost of space exploration, as Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 poem “Whitey on the Moon” attests:
A rat done bit my sister Nell
(With Whitey on the moon).
Her face and arm began to swell
(But Whitey’s on the moon).
Was all that money I made last year
(for Whitey on the moon)?
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon.)
I also felt it closer to my liberal home: my dad had me and my friend dress up for the town’s July 4 “Horribles” parade in 1969 as misfit astronauts with a placard that read, “Would you spend $25 billion to send these kids to the moon?”
What was happening on the ground, and how those events helped to frame the future, was arguably as far-reaching. While we have not been back to walk on the moon for forty-six years, we return to racism daily. It is not merely an entrenched societal problem, but a political tactic for those who opportunistically seek to divide us. Those who use the past to promote the richness of space exploration and the unifying victories of far-flung interstellar missions would do well to inspect the rest of that momentous day.
There were no morale-lifting story lines from the Lejeune riot, no reflections to come decades later from the white, black, and brown soldiers locked in the conflict. For a time, I tried to track down a few of the Lejeune protagonists, but I hit repeated dead ends. I did find a statistical accounting of the judgements: of the forty-four arrested and charged, twenty-four had their charges dropped (all but two were African American); five were acquitted, thirteen convicted of rioting, one deserted before trial, and one was convicted for involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to nine years of hard labor. Three of the five charged with the murder of Bankston were either eighteen or nineteen years old. A group of Marines calling themselves the African American Servicemen of Camp Lejeune drafted a petition asking for commonsense reforms and “lastly and more importantly for the release of those apprehended.” It was anonymously delivered to General Ryan and signed “Semper Fidelis.” Apparently, it had no impact on the judicial proceedings that went forward later in the year.
Hurdle L. Maxwell, a fast-rising thirty-nine-year-old lieutenant colonel who, earlier in the year, became the first African American to command a Marine battalion, was a prominent casualty. He was relieved of his 1st battalion command after the riot and retired two years later. Maxwell was one of two black officers on a seven-member panel that reported to the camp’s commanding general in April 1969—three months prior to the riots—that an “explosive situation of major proportions has been created and continues to be aggravated.” The panel was selected for their rapport with enlisted men and given two weeks to investigate racial conditions on the base. The ad hoc committee made several progressive recommendations and bluntly concluded that the fractious tone was set by “many white officers that retain prejudices and deliberately practice them.” The panel’s intent was for the report to be distributed throughout the overall command structure, but it was never circulated. Later the New York Times obtained and published the full military document—in effect a transparent rendering of entrenched Marine Corps racism.
Maxwell’s achievements had been tracked in several national publications, including Jet and Ebony. Three days after the riot, Maxwell embarked on a six-month tour where Jet reported that Maxwell was set to command the entirety of land and seas units in the Mediterranean, an eighteen-hundred-man detachment comprising most of the Marine forces in Europe. When Maxwell returned, he was demoted. A possible clue to the outcome is found in a December interview he gave in Ebony: “The Corps says it treats all men one way—as a marine,” said Maxwell. “What it actually has done is treat everybody as a white marine.” The comment—in a popular general-circulation magazine—echoed the panel’s core finding that the people in charge at Lejeune failed to listen to and address black Marines’ grievances about racial bigotry.
When I was a small boy in 1969, my family hosted a city kid during the summer of the moon landing. We lived in a beautiful coastal town “at the end of the Earth,” as my mother liked to say. A neighbor confronted our guest one day when he was walking with my brother and said, “Get out of town, nigger.” When my brother and I became old enough to drive we regularly revisited that slur by burning our rear tires deep into the grass he tried to grow along our street.
There might be value in our nation’s collective reminiscing of a mission accomplished, but what do you do when the same occasion is a reminder of a bigger one lost? In 1969, a private at Camp Lejeune told a New York Times reporter, “They say I am just a marine, but how can I forget eighteen years of being black and all that being black means in this country? How can I fight for freedoms around the world that I and my people don’t have here? I asked that question of one of our officers and he said, ‘I can’t figure it out.’ I told him it’s about time someone did if I’m going to die for this country.”
One can’t help but wonder if a more urgent reckoning with our race problem, sparked by the July 20, 1969 Lejeune incident, might have emerged had we not been drunk with our own exceptionalism, written across the sky the same night. The Lejeune story was told but barely registered. The money poured into space—nowhere near the treatment of our country’s original sin, nowhere near preventing the awfulness gathering all around us.