Honoring Black Vietnam Vets

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

On a fence at Ford Factory Lofts (just across from Ponce City Market on the Atlanta BeltLine), is another photo banner from Art on the Atlanta BeltLine: the Vietnam Black Soldiers Portrait Project.

Behind each face - sometimes smiling, sometimes stoic - is a story. A helicopter shot down. An injury by bullet or shrapnel. A crawl through a jungle or rice paddy infested with assassins. A medal awarded, or not.

It is the story of Vietnam, for sure. But it is also the continuing story of our country's inability to overcome prejudice based on skin color, and the suffering it causes.

It is the sad reminder that prejudice follows you onto the battlefield. A realization that the enemy is not always out there, but sometimes within your own ranks.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Johnny Crawford, an award-winning AJC photographer, teacher and artist "who has documented the human spirit in 45 states and four continents for 39 years," according to the project's website.

The banner photos are a snapshot (literally and figuratively) of the larger project, which has been displayed in museums, galleries and event spaces regionally in Macon, Austell, Powder Springs and Riverdale. On the project's website, a more detailed story is told. A veteran tearfully describes a harrowing battle some 50 years ago. There are also more women featured online. All of these faces are an invitation to learn more.

This is the tragic story of black men and women who fought for freedoms they did not have for themselves. It is the story retold of how the underprivileged could not buy or cajole their way out of the draft. "They didn't want to go. They went because they were patriots," Johnny tells us in a video on the website. Some came back injured physically, others came back injured mentally.

Muhammad Ali courageously resisted the draft, resulting in a prison sentence that was later overturned. He poignantly said, "My conscious won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."

The less powerful were, as we know, sent to fight.

But these are also the faces of strength and inspiration. Of the first black pilot to fly a jet bomber twice the speed of sound. Of a purple heart recipient. The first black female general in the Army. Of men and women who fought for a country they loved.