10.20.08

'Go Round the Back'

Powell's endorsement was big news everywhere. Not so long ago few people would have cared: he couldn't even get served at a hamburger joint.

Powell's endorsement was big news everywhere. Not so long ago few people would have cared: he couldn't even get served at a hamburger joint. Below, an excerpt from his book, My American Journey.

Growing up black in America, Colin Powell felt racism at first hand. He found even his military uniform did not protect him from abuse and embarrassment. And racism worked both ways. Powell discovered even black Americans could fall in with the hateful attitudes that divided the nation. These extracts from Powell’s memoir, My American Journey, give chapter and verse.

“GO ROUND THE BACK”

As a young Army officer, who’d got a foot wound in Vietnam, Powell came home in 1963. One night he drove from a house in Phenix City, Alabama, he was rebuilding to his base in Fort Benning, Georgia. He writes:

One night, exhausted and hungry, I locked up the house and headed back toward the post. As I approached a hamburger drive-in joint on Victory Drive, I thought, okay, I know they won’t serve me inside, so I’ll just park outside. I pulled in and after a small eternity a waitress came to my car window.

“A hamburger, please,” I said.

She looked at me uneasily.

“Are you Puerto Rican?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “Are you an African student?” She seemed genuinely trying to be helpful.

“No,” I answered. “I’m a Negro. I’m an American. And I’m an Army officer.”

“Look, I’m from New Jersey,” the waitress said, “and I don’t understand any of this. But they won’t let me serve you. Why don’t you go behind the restaurant, and I’ll pass you a hamburger out the back window.”

Something snapped. “I’m not that hungry,” I said, burning rubber as I backed out. As I drove away, I could see the faces of the owner and his customers in the restaurant windows enjoying this little exercise in humiliation. My emotional reaction, or at least revealing my emotion this way, was not my style. Ordinarily, I was not looking for trouble. I was not marching, or demonstrating or taking part in sit-ins. My eye was on an Army career for myself and a good life for my family. For me, the real world began in the post. I regarded military installations in the South as healthy cells in an otherwise sick body.”

One evening that fall, while I was driving from Birmingham to Fort Benning, an Alabama State Trooper flagged me down near the town of Sylacauga. He shook his head. “Boy,” he said, “you ain’t smart enough to be around here. You better get going.” Which I did quickly.

THE TROOPER WITH THE GOLDWATER STICKER

One evening that fall, while I was driving from Birmingham to Fort Benning, an Alabama State Trooper flagged me down near the town of Sylacauga. Speeding? Not outside the realm of possibility. To my surprise, the trooper was not concerned about my driving. He was handing out bumper stickers for Goldwater! He looked over the Volks, an alien vehicle in sixties Alabama. Strike one. He checked my license plate – New York State. Strike two. He spotted the LBJ sticker. Strike three. And a black at the wheel. I had somehow managed to accumulate four strikes. He shook his head. “Boy,” he said, “you ain’t smart enough to be around here. You better get going.” Which I did quickly.

POWELL AND THE BLACK TROUBLE MAKER

White officers could be tough on white troublemakers and shirkers, but many were reluctant to crack down on recalcitrant blacks for fear of being labeled racists. I had no such qualms, as in the case of a corporal whom I shall call Biggs, My command sergeant major, Albert Pettigrew, a soldier of the old school, came to one day looking distressed. “Begging the colonel’s permission,” Pettigrew said. “I just need to advise the colonel that we have a new man transferred in from the artillery battalion up north, Corporal Biggs.”

“So?”

“Corporal Biggs looks like trouble,” Pettigrew said. He’s from that battalion where the CO got relieved because he lost control of his men. Biggs was the ringleader. Now he’s got himself transferred here to Casey.”

“Got himself transferred?” I asked. The resourceful Corporal Biggs, Pettigrew explained, had managed to have orders cut sending him wherever he wanted to go. “I’d like to see this soldier,” I told Pettigrew.

Soon Biggs was before me, a small cocky-looking guy. “I’m really glad to be down here,” he told me.

“Why?” I asked him.

Biggs informed me in a serious confidential tone we had serious racial problems, but he thought he could handle them.

“Really,” I said. “That’s nice. But let me tell you the rules we go by in the Bucs.” Biggs listened with bored courtesy as I explained how I ran my battalion.

The next thing I knew Biggs was holding meetings with black troops behind the barracks, and proving a skilled organizer. He gave dire warnings of what white officers would do if blacks did not stand up to them. He used drugs to manipulate himself into a position of control. After three weeks of this provocation, I had Pettigrew bring me Biggs’ file. After studying the file, I called the corporal to my office again. “How’re we doing Biggs?” I asked.

Biggs looked grave. “Sir the battalion’s more trouble than I thought. I just got here in time. We ought to get together every day to talk things over.”

“That won’t be possible,” I said.

“Why not?

“You see, Corporal, there’s a plane at Osan and you are going to be on today. The plane is going to Fort Travis Air Force Base in California and when you get off some people will be waiting with your discharge papers. And then they’re going to put you the gate.”

“You can’t do that to me,” Biggs protested.

“I’ve already done it. You’re out of my battalion. Out of this brigade. Out of this division. Out of this man’s Army. And you are unemployed.

I was on solid ground since I had found enough misconduct in Biggs’ record to support an “administrative discharge,” a way to get rid of unfit soldiers for a miscellany of reasons. I called in Sergeant Major Pettigrew and two of my biggest, toughest NCO’s to take the man away. Soon word went out to the battalion. “You hear what Brother P did? Whacked Biggs. Biggs is gone. man, gone. You don’t mess with Bro P.”

We had plenty of white problems, but proportionately we had more disciplinary problems with blacks. Less opportunity, less education, less money, fewer jobs for blacks equaled more anti-social behavior in the States, and these attitudes traveled...

Among the blacks, I had some of the finest soldiers and NCOs I have ever known. I did not like seeing their performance diminished by nihilistic types, a minority within a minority.

Extracted from My American Journey by Colin Powell, Random House. © Random House.