By Carter Diggs
Baba Woroka Mwanafunzi Sobukwe
“We’re still on that same road we’ve been on since 1968. War has not ceased since then.”
Alabama native Baba Woroka Mwanafunzi Sobukwe joined the U.S. Army in 1967 as a way to escape discrimination and become a man.
“Alabama was Alabama, just like Mississippi was Mississippi,” he said. “We were seeking our manhood. We were tired of running from the police and tired of being discriminated against, so we went into the Army to try and find a way of standing up for ourselves.”
A year later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“King was the last hope for peace,” he said. “When King was killed, all the people my age said that that was it, there’s no hope left.”
Following King’s assassination, the Army was put on alert, and Sobukwe’s regiment was taken to Washington, D.C. “We loaded up 60 trucks, five tanks and two helicopters,” Sobukwe said. “We went out to D.C, and we stayed there night and day.”
He and fellow soldiers patrolled the streets by day. Despite high tensions, Sobukwe said peace came 10 days later on April 14, Easter Sunday. That morning, D.C. citizens and soldiers left their homes dressed in their Sunday best and ready to celebrate the holiday.
But peace didn’t last. During riots one day, a group of people set a city building on fire. As the fire department responded, the arsonists, still in the building, opened fire. Members of Sobukwe’s regiment called in for support hunkered down next to the firemen.
“That day, some people found their humanity,” Sobukwe said.
When a white lieutenant who stood beside Sobukwe called for someone to bring a grenade launcher so he could launch it into the house and kill the people inside, one of the men standing behind Sobukwe spoke out against the white lieutenant.
“He told him, ‘You aren’t gonna shoot nothing inside that house,’” Sobukwe said. “I was stunned, because I had never seen any black person talk to a white person like that. Not only was he talking to a white man; he was talking to an officer in the United States Army. I asked where he got that courage from, and when I looked on his shoulder, I saw a patch where he had been to Vietnam. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go get me some of that courage.’”
Immediately after the D.C. riots, Sobukwe went straight to his superiors and requested a transfer. In August of that year, he landed on the battlegrounds of Vietnam.
“We knew what the conflict was all about, though,” Sobukwe said. “I knew we couldn’t win.”
One night while lying on a sandbag, Sobukwe watched a gunship nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon rain fire on a group of distant enemy soldiers. As the ship shot at the Vietnamese soldiers, Sobukwe noticed one soldier shooting back. Seeing one soldier fight until the end made him realize the Vietnamese would never give in, and there was no chance of a full victory.
“I think a lot of us found courage [in Vietnam],” said Sobukwe, who believes we are still seeking solutions to race issues. “That’s (where) we are now, and we’re still seeking a solution to this problem, but nobody’s asking us what we think the answer is.”
Sobukwe said the first step in making things right is for honest people to unite, look at what happened then, what’s happening now, and what the people of the country and the government can do to progress.
“If we don’t do something and do it quick,” Sobukwe said, “we’re looking at the graveyard. We’ve got quiet now, but the quiet comes just before the storm.”
As a long-term goal, Sobukwe holds a nationalist mindset, wishing for African American citizens to establish their own distinct state and culture. He feels integration isn’t the right direction, and that it would require a complete reconstruction of the nation’s constitution and structure to establish a system free of prejudice.
“It hasn’t changed,” Sobukwe said. “It’s changed for individuals, but not for the collective. We’re still on that same road we’ve been on since 1968. War has not ceased since then.”
Even as more African Americans find ways to succeed in today’s culture, Sobukwe said he believes everyone should focus on the most downtrodden in society and see what can be done to raise the economic floor. Echoing King, Sobukwe said he believes as long as there is one person still being discriminated against or one family living in poverty, there is work to be done.
After serving in the Army, Sobukwe began teaching African American history and culture. “He’s taught me a lot,” said Ayo Williams, Sobukwe’s granddaughter, who is a freshman member of the University of Mississippi Black Student Union. “Growing up, he had a lot of interesting stories that show how brave and courageous he is. He grew up in a time where he could have been killed for some little thing, like back-talking a white police officer. He did those things. He’s still here, and I think that’s really amazing.”
Sobukwe said he once taught at the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in New York, but has since parted ways with the organization. Hamer was an American voting rights activist and Civil Rights Movement leader who worked primarily in Mississippi and was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. Today, Sobukwe teaches a course at the University of Mississippi and history to anyone interested.