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.
Above, photos by Johnny Crawford from vietnamblacksoldiersportraitproject.com.
Johnny notes that some of the veterans did not want to talk about their experience. Which is understandable. But that a thank you was appreciated.
"Many of these black soldiers, nobody ever said thank you to them." These narratives have been told many times about soldiers in Vietnam, but presumably about white soldiers. They now resonate amid our current struggles as a nation.
Check out the banner and the website, and thank these soldiers, even if in your own heart.
February is Black History Month. Read, learn or contribute in some way. Here are some ideas.
An Atlanta native, Nicole Gustin is the Founder & CEO of BiteLines, which offers walking food tours on the Atlanta BeltLine. She considers the BeltLine her backyard, and is excited to see how Atlanta is reinventing itself. The BiteLines blog features art, restaurants, happenings and weirdness on the Atlanta BeltLine. Share story ideas and pics at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow on Instagram @bitelinesatl.
Note: We have paused our tours during the pandemic, but will ramp up again as soon as it’s safe.