A few weeks ago, the Army announced the correction of records of 110 soldiers convicted by court-martial after the so-called “Houston Riots” in 1917. Here is, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”

The Army, like all of the services (and American society) remained segregated in 1917. Upon entering World War I, the Army initially decided to only send white soldiers to Europe. The 24th Infantry Regiment, composed of African American soldiers led by white officers. Though it served in the Philippines and on the Mexican border previously, the Army divided the regiment’s battalions across the United States to guard camps being built up to train those white soldiers. Third Battalion, the 3/24, was assigned to Camp Logan in Houston, Texas. They were not welcomed by the local community. As Dr. Bray states in his book (reviewed here, and highly recommended), “white citizens saw black soldiers as social disorder embodied.”

Admirably, those young soldiers and veterans recoiled at Jim Crow. Again, as Bray describes, they “defiantly challeng[ed] the color line.” As any person of honor would react, they “became increasingly intolerant of disrespect.”

The Army’s strategic decisionmaking, perhaps well-intentioned, compounded the problem. Around the same time, in response to public pressure, it stood up its “Colored Officer Training Camp.” But that just pulled desperately needed enlisted leadership away from a battalion facing a deeply hostile environment.

As Dr. Bray explains:

“On August 14, a white construction worker loudly discussed the racially distinct cures for a ‘nigger snakebite;’ a guard from the 3/24 raised his weapon, warning the workman to watch how he spoke. On August 18, black and white civilian workers brawled over their place in a payroll line; a white worker stabbed a black camp employee to death while black soldiers assigned to the area as guards looked on in disgust. On August 20, a white contractor backed his car into a black civilian taking a nap under a tree; Pvt. Pat McWhorter leveled his rifle at the driver and called him ‘a vile name.’”  

With no experienced enlisted leadership and an officer corps perceived to be “weak and useless,” events erupted on August 23rd.

After breaking up an illegal craps game in an African American neighborhood, two local police officers pursued the teenagers that ran from them. After firing at least one round toward the suspects, one officer burst into the home of an African American woman. After being subjected to several objectively racist comments, the homeowner complained about the officer being in her home without permission. After apparently slapping her, both officers agreed she “needed to go to jail for talking back to the, and they hauled her—from her living room, barely dressed—into the street.”

Pvt. Alonzo Williams, off duty on a pass, intervened. One of the officers, Lee Sparks, pulled out his revolver and repeatedly struck Pvt. Williams. He was then arrested and transported to jail.

Another soldier, a noncommissioned officer in uniform, later confronted Officer Sparks and demanded an explanation. After responding, “I don’t report to no niggers,” Sparks responded by again drawing his weapon and striking the soldier in the head, firing three shorts toward him as he retreated. When apprehended and also transported to jail, Officer Sparks claimed the soldier “had accidentally run into a wall.”

Again, Bray reports the subsequent game of telephone after soldiers ran back to camp we can all relate to:

A white Houston police officer had fired shots at a black corporal, they said, and probably killed him. As the story circulated, two city police detectives showed up at the camp to investigate an unrelated theft, and soldiers saw them arrive. Men guessed at the meaning of their appearance, adding details to an invented story. The police killed one of ours, and now they’re gathering on our camp to do something more to us.

Officers completely bungled the response. After the acting first sergeant of one of the companies warned the battalion commander things were getting out of hand, a Major was dispatched to investigate. He found soldiers in a supply tent taking rifle ammunition. He reacted by ordering all first sergeants to search all tents for loose ammunition.

To the soldiers, their leadership—after failing to support them—now sought to disarm them. A white mob was en route to attack. In the absence of leadership, the soldiers armed themselves to defend against the impending attack. Seventy-five to 100 infantryman responded to the perceived threat by taking the offensive.

The result was a running gun battle through the streets of Houston.

People died.

Consequences followed.

Amongst other discipline, sixty-three soldiers faced court-martial. Charged with disobeying orders, mutiny, conspiracy to commit murder, and assault, the Army detailed MAJ Harry Grier, an infantry officer with no legal training or experience, to represent all sixty-three soldiers in a joint trial.

He was given two weeks to prepare.

Fifty-four soldiers were convicted of every charge. Five were found not guilty. Four were convicted of disobeying orders. The sentence was announced outside the presence of the Accuseds. Thirteen were sentenced to die. They had previously requested to die by firing squad if so sentenced. The court-martial rejected the request and sentenced them to die by hanging.

At the time, as discussed elsewhere regarding the Ansell-Crowder debates, Army regulations required records of trial to be submitted to the JAG Department in Washington, D.C., for review.

Before their records of trial were received by the JAG Department, the soldiers were hanged in gallows built by their fellow soldiers.

General Ansell challenged the system. He was rewarded with a demotion and run out of the Army.

The very concept of the military justice system is anathema to the American constitutional system. Rather than remaining a “necessary evil” to discipline amateur soldiers and foreign mercenaries in times of grave danger to the sovereign territory of the United States, it has become a fifty-first jurisdiction.

The military exercises general jurisdiction over a society larger than more than ten other states in the Union. It does so while disregarding constitutional guarantees afforded any other individual, regardless of nationality, facing criminal prosecution on American soil. It can literally prosecute you for cheating on your taxes, while living off base in suburban Maryland, during peacetime.1 It can prosecute for doing, or not doing, something that, if known, would lower the service in public esteem. Who decides if the public thinks less of the service? The service.

State prosecutors love this. It gets cases off their docket and reduces their caseload (unless it is sexy enough to run on for election).

Politicians are too scared to uproot this anathema. The Department of Defense is the largest special interest group in the United States. And unlike World War II, where drastic mobilization exposed prominent members of society and Congress (and their families) to the military justice system’s inequities, fewer than 1% of American society serves (or has served) in the approximately million member caste (in a country of over 331 million citizens) today.

But though states don’t want the extra work, politicians are scared, and the public is mostly uninterested, one can trace a line through American history (since its Founding) seeking to limit the unconstitutional expansion of military justice. It is halting, inadequate, and continues to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens facing severe military and civilian criminal consequences, but it is there. That speaks volumes.  

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  1. See Solorio v. United States, 483 U.S. 435, 467 (1987) (Marshall, J., dissenting) (“Unless Congress acts to avoid the consequences of this case, every member of our Armed Forces, whose active duty members number in the millions, can now be subjected to court-martial jurisdiction – without grand jury indictment or trial by jury – for any offense, from tax fraud to passing a bad check, regardless of its lack of relation to military discipline, morale and fitness.”) (internal quotations and citation omitted) ↩