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Vietnam Vet Recalls Life in 'Bama; Marching With King

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 1999 – Blatant, in-your-face discrimination against African Americans in his hometown of Selma, Ala., made Vincent L. Johnson an angry young man.

That anger fueled a fire for equality and justice for African Americans. He joined in civil rights demonstrations and marched Martin Luther King Jr. Now, at age 53, he's focusing the energy and lessons learned during the civil rights struggle toward building equal opportunity and diversity in the Air Force's civilian work force.

Johnson, a GS-14 personnel management specialist, is chief of the disability and black employment programs in the Air Force's Human Resources Development Division at the Pentagon. His responsibilities include developing and implementing policies and procedures for managing discrimination complaints. He also coordinates training for nearly 360 Air Force equal employment opportunity counselors.

He said he didn't personally experience the discrimination his family did in Alabama because most of his formative years were spent living on Army posts in Germany, Texas, Missouri, Virginia and Oklahoma. His father, the late retired Army Master Sgt. Vincent L. Johnson, was drafted in 1944 and served in a trucking outfit overseas during World War II. Young Johnson's experiences with racism came during vacations with his family in Alabama.

"I was angry during that period," said Johnson, a 1968 Army draftee who earned two Purple Heart Medals as an infantryman in Vietnam. "How could I have not been? My father and uncles put their lives on the line for their country in the military, yet we were treated as less than human during that period."

When he visited relatives in Alabama, it was particularly galling to him to witnessing the discrimination his aunts and uncles endured. One of his aunts was a high school teacher, another taught elementary school, and an uncle owned a small construction company.

Even thought they spent their money in white-owned businesses, they were not allowed to use any facilities - bathrooms, water fountains - and they always had to wait until all the white folks were served, Johnson said.

In comparing life on Army posts to living in Alabama, Johnson believes the military led the way for equality and fairness for minorities. "The Army gave my father the opportunity to grow professionally and as a man," he noted. "And the Army got him out of the coal mines."

Being a military dependent changed his outlook on life by exposing him to different cultures overseas and providing him with the opportunity to attend better schools than those open to African Americans in Alabama, Johnson said.

"I learned very fast that I was just as smart, just as athletic and could compete with anyone," he said. He also learned to understand how segregation was "hurting the country by not using the talents of all our citizens."

He said marching with King taught him that one person could make a difference by standing up for what is right and for his beliefs. When King led his famous Selma to Montgomery march on March 21, 1965, Johnson was among the more than 8,000 protest marchers starting in Selma. Protected by federal troops, they were joined along the way by more than 25,000 marchers.

King mobilized and embarrassed the country into changing discriminatory practices faster than it would have happened otherwise, Johnson said. But he thinks things would have eventually changed, but at a much slower pace.

Johnson returned to Selma in 1970 when his father retired and moved back there to live until his death at 88 in 1997. Armed with a bachelor's degree in education from Langston (Okla.) University, he pursued a master's degree in education and a doctorate in guidance and counseling at Alabama (Montgomery) State University.

He said those hated "white only" and "colored only" signs are down now and African Americans have made phenomenal progress in Alabama, including the political arena.

Johnson credits DoD and the military services with making remarkable strides in improving race relations and opening up opportunities for African Americans, other minorities and women. "I'm impressed with the progress DoD has made in my 20-year civilian career," he said. "DoD should be the leader as we are the defenders of freedom for all Americans."

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