This Day In History: August 23

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On the morning of August 23, 1968, a group of Black soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas stage one of the largest acts of civil disobedience ever recorded among members of the United States military. Adopting the non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement, the soldiers stage a sit-in to protest their impending deployment to Chicago to defend the Democratic National Convention from protesters.

By 1968, sit-ins were a well-established, peaceful way to protest segregation and demand racial equality. But even as the war in Vietnam escalated and more Americans were sent to fight there, dissent by active-duty military personnel remained rare. Tensions all over the country were peaking in August of 1968 in the wake of the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Bobby Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic nomination. As protesters headed to Chicago to demand aggressive action on civil rights and an anti-war plank in the Democratic Party’s platform, law enforcement geared up for what would turn out to be a brutal crackdown.

The convention had not yet begun when the troops at Fort Hood received word that they would be deployed to Chicago. The night before they were slated to ship out, 60 Black soldiers sat down at an intersection on the grounds of the fort and began their sit-in. “The people we are supposed to control, the rioters, are probably our own race,” one of them reportedly said. “We shouldn’t have to go out there and do wrong to our own people.” Others stated that they had served honorably and done everything the Army asked, but drew the line at a treating their fellow citizens as “hostiles.”

Military leaders and staff spoke with the protesters early the following morning, after which 17 soldiers left the protest. The remaining 43 were eventually detained, with most being court-martialed, demoted and even sentenced to hard labor for refusing to leave the sit-in. The protest of the Fort Hood 43 remains one of the largest acts of civil disobedience ever conducted by members of the American military, although it was overshadowed by the chaotic Chicago convention they refused to police.