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Old footage of a Vietnam vet surprises his family when it goes viral

NBC News logo NBC News 8/14/2020 Isoke Samuel
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Throughout his life, Sylvester Bracey often spoke about having fought in Vietnam, his experience with racism in the Marine Corps, and about being an outspoken advocate for his fellow Black service members.

He also spoke of being interviewed about being a Black Marine for a documentary that he never saw.

That interview has now been viewed more than 5 million times, after footage of it when viral on Twitter after a clip was posted from a 1970 documentary, “The Black G.I.,” nearly 50 years after it originally aired on television.

Bracey died in December, but his grandson, Sylvester Bracey III, 22, spotted the clip and immediately shared it with his family.

“I grew up with my grandfather and to be able to see visual confirmation and hear him in his prime, talking about the same things that he was kicking in the 60s, was really powerful,” he said. “For as long as he was alive, he was always planning like: ‘How can we as Black people get free? How can we create community? How can we work together to build something that works for us.’”

According to his family, Bracey enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 18 in 1967. Bracey would go on to serve two tours in Vietnam, and at one point agreed to be interviewed for an episode of the National Educational Television’s “Black Journal,” a monthly public news program focusing on Black Americans.

This summer, a graduate student, Oluwanisola “Sola” Olosunde, known for posting historical footage on social media, shared a clip from the documentary, and the internet exploded with admiration for the words spoken in Bracey’s smooth Mississippi-born-Chicago-raised accent.

“We go over here, we fight, we fight to defend the water we drink, the land we grow our food on and our way of culture,” Bracey says. “And then we go back, we’re continuously harassed.”

In the interview, Bracey Sr. is sitting around a table with a group of Black Marines at a mess hall where they share their grievances with regulations on hairstyle and clothing choice. Bracey suggests that the Vietnamese people were being taught racist views and language by white American military personnel. He shares the story of a Vietnamese girl who called him the N-word and questions where she learned it.

Calling out the daily struggles with racism that Black men faced in Vietnam and back in the U.S., was an important part of Bracey’s hope for empowering the Black community.

Scholar Daniel Lucks wrote in 2017 that the Vietnam War was a disproportionately divisive topic for Black Americans, especially with the racial bias in the draft and poor treatment of the service members of color.

The issue of racism in the military and in the Vietnam War was reaching a head as reports of discriminatory treatment against Black troops made it back to the U.S. Additionally, prominent Black Americans like Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. came out against the war.

In 1967, only 29 percent of Black men and 63 percent of white men were eligible for conscription, yet the armed services drafted 64 percent of the eligible Black pool and only 31 percent of the white pool. Project 100,000, a plan created in 1966 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, admitted more than 300,000 men, many who had failed the Armed Forces Qualification Test, into the military. Approximately 40 percent were Black, which was disproportionate to the general population. These new service members had a death rate more than twice the rate of the entire American armed forces.

These factors, as well as the continued hardships they faced upon returning home, caused many Black Americans to oppose the war. According to Lucks, many questioned why they should be fighting a war in Vietnam when the civil rights conflict that directly affected them was hardly resolved in the U.S.

Lucks wrote that in 1972, Black service members received more than 20 percent of the bad-conduct discharges and close to one-third of dishonorable discharges. They were often the result of trivial offenses like giving the Black power salute or wearing their hair too long.

Throughout the film, men complained that there were risks for standing up to authority figures or speaking up when they experienced racism. In fact Bracey told the filmmakers, “What I say now might incriminate me.”

“It was a microcosm of the United States,” his son, Sylvester Bracey Jr., said. “So, the way that they would treat Black men in the United States in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69, ‘70 for speaking against what he was told to do — is the same way they would treat you in the Marine Corps.”

Bracey Sr. was not exempt. His son said he was even arrested at one point for speaking out.

“They really treated him like the enemy of the state,” he said. He also noted that his father believed he was surveilled by intelligence agencies for years after the war.

When Bracey Sr. returned from Vietnam, he used the skills he’d learned there to work as an electrician, wiring L trains for the Chicago Transit Authority. He also worked for the U.S. Post Office and as a crane operator for International Harvester. All the while he continued to study and preach the lessons he’d briefly articulated in the documentary.

He also wrote an unpublished work about the life lessons that he wanted to pass on to other Black men, called “Of Importance to Men.”

“Most anything he wrote had to do with the empowerment of ‘the people,’" his grandson said. “This included his observations from before the civil rights era until the day he died.”

Bracey Sr. experienced liver and kidney issues that his doctors linked to his exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used to destroy forest cover and crops that military personnel were exposed to during the war. He died from heart disease in December before seeing the documentary he had spoken about throughout his life.

“He was a huge advocate for ‘Black Power,’ believing that Black people should have our own, own our businesses and support our communities,” said Angella Allen, Bracey Sr.’s ex-wife. “He believed that revolution might be the only answer to equal rights for Blacks. He was a dreamer. He dreamed big for Black people. His biggest desire was to create a spark in others, to ignite their own creations and to use their talents to create a legacy to be passed on and remembered.”

Mimicking the smooth cadence of his father's voice, Bracey Jr. said that if his father were alive to see the interview and the reaction it received, he would say something like: “I've been telling y'all that when the people heard me speak they were going to be ready to move. Now, the video shows that people are ready. So now it is time to move.”

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