Podcast: “All I did was open my mouth,” Ahmad Daniels sentenced to a decade in military prison
As a black serviceman in the 1960s, Ahmad Daniels was quickly disillusioned to fight for a country that considered him to be a second-class citizen. The military sentenced him to 10 years in prison for speaking to other servicemen about the injustices he saw and questioning military authority.
“There was one time they told us to go up this hill. About 10 of us. We went up to the top of the hill and we started dancing. We started boogalooing. Doing the twist and everything. So again, they said, “That must be Daniels. He must be the one who’s getting people to do all that.” So they saw me as a threat. … MPs, military police, came. Handcuffs. Took us to the commanding general. Finally got a chance to see him, right? And he read off a charge sheet. He said in essence we had violated the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to counsel, urge, cause, and attempt to cause insubordination and refusal of duty. To the brig we go. … So after five or six days’ court martial. They sentenced me the 10 years.”
“I walk into the church, and … the first thing I hear is, “Get your black ass out of here.” I began to wonder and I began to ask, “Why am I in this military, about to fight for the country, when I cannot pray to the same god as these people?””
“Guys are coming back from Vietnam. Rape. Murder. Cutting off women’s breasts. Sticking bottles up their vagina. The most sadistic things imaginable—and none of them had 10 years. I said, “How in the hell can you do this to another human being and get three or four years? All I did was open my mouth and I get 10!””
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Ahmad Daniels: One Sunday I just said, “Rather than and go to the church on base, let me go see what this church is like out in the civilian world.”
I walk into the church, and unbeknowing to me, the first thing I hear is, “Get your black ass out of here.”
I began to wonder and I began to ask, “Why am I in this military, about to fight for the country, when I cannot pray to the same god as these people?”
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace.
Today on the podcast I’m speaking with Ahmad Daniels. Ahmad volunteered for the Marines during the Vietnam conflict. As a black serviceman in the 1960s, Ahmad was quickly disillusioned to fight for a country that considered him to be a second-class citizen.
The military used an obscure law to sentence him to 10 years in prison for speaking to other servicemen about the injustices he saw and questioning military authority.
Ahmad, excited to be talking with you tonight. Why don’t you start us off real quickly. Just give us a little bit of background about where you grew up and how you came to join the military.
Ahmad Daniels: I grew up in New York City. My earlier memories go back to my parents renting and living in the projects in Brooklyn. And then one summer my parents came home and said, “We’re no longer going to be living here. We bought a home out in Queens.”
So growing up in New York, growing up in Queens was a very good experience. I went to PS 136, neighborhood school. Walked to school every day. Had lots of friends there. So my youth was pretty mundane. Pretty ordinary. Almost boring to some extent.
When I joined the Marine Corps in 1966, it was right after high school, at the age of 17.
Matthew Breems: What led you to join the Marine Corps? What was your motivation for that?
Ahmad Daniels: Good question. I have an older brother, Larry, who is seven years my senior. He served four years in the Marines from 1959 to 1963. His duty stations were Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, places in Japan, Okinawa— wonderful duty stations. He spent a lot of time on the USS Boxer.
So his tour of duty was uneventful. It only consisted of getting drunk, which he stayed drunk a lot, and loving the women that he encountered. I wasn’t drinking because I was a runner and I didn’t smoke marijuana at that stage of my life. But I loved women so I said, “Well, you know, I need to do that.”
When I saw the uniforms of the Marine Corps, they made all other uniforms of the other branches pale in comparison. They were striking. They were well fit. The Marines seemed to hold their head up higher than anybody else. So off to the recruiting office I went with my mother and father in tow.
Matthew Breems: Your motivations were very altruistic, then.
Ahmad Daniels: Very altruistic.
Yeah right. That’s very selfish. I wasn’t caring about anybody else’s needs. And I certainly did not know anything about Vietnam. I could not have found Vietnam on a map had that been the only country on the map. I just didn’t know anything about it.
So when I joined, my brother Larry said, “If you’re going to join the Marine Corps, ask your recruiter for an aviation guarantee. If you score high enough on the entry level exam, that means they will have to send you to a jet mechanic school, so you’ll learn how to work on jet engine helicopters. When you get out, you’ll be able to work for TWA.”
Which was in existence at that time.
“Eastern Airlines,” which also was around.
“And you’ll make good money. 25, $30 an hour.”
I said, “That sounds pretty good.”
I joined. Bootcamp was bootcamp. In Parris Island, South Carolina. So here I am in boot camp. Did well there. Fired sharp shooter on the rifle range. And then I’m sent to Millington, Tennessee, for jet mechanic school.
And I’m in jet mechanic school doing quite well, learning about jet engine inlet guide veins. How to safety wire an engine. And I never knew that there were wire holding certain bolts to keep them from turning loose. So all of these things were quite new to me.
And I was a Christian at that time. I would go to church on base, on base every Sunday. I wasn’t religious, but it’s like people who wear crosses nowadays: they’re not that religious, but it’s more like a fashion statement, more so than anything else. So for me, going to church was just something to do.
So one Sunday I said, “Well, rather than to go to the church on base, let me go see what this church is like out into a civilian world.”
So I put on my uniform. When I put on my uniform, I was immaculate. I was cleaner than the board of health. You could have eaten off my shoes and you could have sliced your bread with that sharp crease in my trousers, because that’s how much I loved that uniform.
I walk into the church, and unbeknowing to me, the first thing I hear is, “Get your black ass out of here.”
I was shocked but not shocked enough to want to fight anybody or to create some type of upheaval. I was shocked, so I walked out. And it was like, if you’re biblical, Saul on the road to Damascus, who hears the word of the Lord and he becomes Paul. That was the kind of enlightenment I had.
I began to wonder and I began to ask, “Why am I in this military, about to fight for the country, when I cannot pray to the same God as these white people?”
I was very naïve about race. I did not know anything about it. When King marched on Washington with thousands of people in 1963, I did not know what that was about. When the public accommodations bill was passed by Congress in 1964, totally oblivious of that. Voting rights bill, 1965. I thought black people could always vote. So I was very naive.
Something told me to go to the library. And as enlisted men, we do not frequent the library. Officers go to libraries, not enlisted men. Something told me to go, and I was an E-2, one step above a private, and I went to the library.
I picked up three books that began to put me on a different trajectory in my life: “Crisis In Black and White” by Charles E Silberman, “Who Speaks For the Negro?” by Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wright’s “White Man, Listen!”
In these books were conversations with people like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Medgar Evers, Paul Robeson, names I had known nothing about, ever.
And in those books were also stories about black people who had fought in various wars and came back hoping to be recognized as the citizens they were even before they fought in the damn war, but they would never treated like that.
So I said, “Well, my goodness, why am I in this military then, if my people have fought and we can’t receive the recognition?”
Then I read the autobiography of Malcolm X. That took me to a whole nother level. So I became so disillusioned, I flunked out of jet mechanic school. I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t know who I was. It was like I woke up, and I was told that my parents weren’t my parents, and I had no idea who I was!
So when I flunk out of aviation school, they sent me eventually to Camp Pendleton. Camp Pendleton is in California. That’s a major, major training base. The next step after Camp Pendleton is Southeast Asia. Vietnam.
I’m in Camp Pendleton and I meet this guy named William Harvey. Harvey’s from Brooklyn. And we started talking. He said, “Man, I ain’t going to go to no Vietnam, fight for these white people.”
Of course, you have to keep in mind what’s taking place at this time. It’s the summer of 1967. Tanks are rolling down the streets of Newark and Detroit because of major upheavals taking place in urban areas, mainly black urban areas, and on these tanks had 50-caliber machine guns.
For any person who knows anything about a 50-caliber round, it’s a pretty big doggone round! If it goes through a wall in a tenement-like situation, it can easily tear off somebody’s head. The bullet will keep going and tear up someone’s leg. And this is what they were firing in my community!
So me and Harvey, we begin to ask ourselves, “Well, why are we going to Vietnam to fight yellow people and apparently have to return and fight white people?”
So we said, “Well, man, what are we going to do?”
I held up a picture of Life Magazine with that tank on it, and that would be the topic of our discussion for that evening. “What are we going to do?”
George was my name. “George, what are we going to do at that time?”
I said, “I don’t know but let’s speak to the commanding general. He has three stars on his shoulder. Let’s ask him why we should go to Vietnam, and maybe he could give us a logical reason.”
Matthew Breems: So was this an earnest question that you were hoping to ask your general?
Ahmad Daniels: Yes. That’s exactly right.
Matthew Breems: It wasn’t just to be smart. It was, you honestly wanted to know.
Ahmad Daniels: I honestly wanted to know, and I honestly was that damn naive to think you could ask a commanding general why you should go fight. Marines are told what to do. We are not to question why. Ours is to do or die.
And that was what we were trained. That was what we were trained to do. And had I not walked into that white church, I would have still have espoused that whole idea of, “Ours is not to question why. Ours is to do or die.” Because that’s what I believe so much.
At the intersection of race and the military, race stood out more so than any commitment I could make to the military. I had been born black, but the military didn’t come until I was 17. So to me, what became significantly much more important than the military was my people, my nationality, my place in this world as a black man.
So the next morning I said, “First Sergeant” … Because you just don’t go knock on the commanding general’s door. You go through what it is called a chain of command. That means you start with your immediate supervisor, for lack of a better term, and then your’ll work your way through the ranks. And if none of those people—first captain, major, colonel— if none of them can address your issue to your satisfaction, then ultimately you go up to the commanding general.
So we started with the first sergeant. “First Sergeant, there’s some of us here who wish to request mass.”
Which is a naval term, which means that you want to speak to somebody about a grievance.
And he said, “Who?”
I kind of held up my hand and waved people forward. About 10 black Marines took a step forward. He looked and said, “If any of you take your behinds past me, I’ll make sure you all go to jail for mutiny.”
So nine of them took a step back. Harvey was adamant about how he felt about wanting to speak to the commanding general. The others, they hadn’t done the reading. They did not have the convictions that I had. They simply felt that, “If I say I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.”
Heck. The military was mainly made up of people who have been conscripted. They were drafted. They didn’t have a choice. And if it was that easy to just say, “I don’t want to go,” and then you’re out, they wouldn’t have anybody to fight.
So some of them said, “Hey, I don’t want to have this conversation. This was Daniels’s fault.”
My idea was, when the time came, they would offer me my orders. I would flatly refuse them and serve my five years in jail and receive a dishonorable discharge.
The military erred in that sense because they didn’t wait. What they did, they called in the Officers of Naval Intelligence, and they began questioning the other Marines, “Did Daniels ever tell you not to get a haircut? Did Daniels ever tell you to refuse an order?”
They really gave me much more credit than I had. I did not have that kind of influence on these other Marines. So when the day came, when I thought I was going home on leave, before coming back for what we call staging, the final training period before you are shipped off to Southeast Asia, the military police came.
Matthew Breems: Why do you think that they saw you as such a threat to escalate it to have it investigated by the Navy?
Ahmad Daniels: Great question, because you helped me remember a point.
When I checked in to Camp Pendleton, I did not have on my Marine Corps uniform. You don’t have to travel in your Marine uniform. I had on a silk suit with an Italian knit and I had a star and crescent around my neck, which is a sign of Islam.
Captain Trautwein. I will never forget the Captain Trautwein. He said, “Uh, Marine, what is that around your neck?”
I said, “It’s a star and crescent. It represents my religion.”
He said, “Are you Muslim?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Well, I’d like to talk to you about that at some point.”
I said, “Fine.”
He called me into his office about a week later and we had a four-hour conversation. I talked about white and black people need to be separated—because I had already been through the Nation of Islam’s mosque in South Central, L.A., so a lot of their teachings I had embraced fully.
Naively, to bring them up in that kind of situation … But I thought that the First Amendment, something I had heard about in high school … I thought it applied.
Later, on when I read my transcript, and when I heard what he said at the court martial, he told the first sergeant, “Keep your eye on Daniels.”
Matthew Breems: So he had you labeled as a troublemaker, because not only were you a young African American but you were a Muslim, and he wasn’t comfortable with either of those.
Ahmad Daniels: Was not comfortable.
There was one time they told us to go up this hill. About 10 of us. We went up to the top of the hill and we started dancing. We started boogalooing. Doing the twist and everything. So again, they said, “That must be Daniels. He must be the one who’s getting people to do all that.”
So they saw me as a threat. They also knew about the meeting we had at lunch, because it was during that lunchtime meeting on base that we decided we were going to request mass that next day. And I was the one that organized the meeting. Harvey was one that took down all the names of those Marines that wanted to speak to the commanding general.
So they had some inkling: the conversation I had when I had been there less than a week; The fact that I had people dancing at the top of the hill in the military— this first sergeant didn’t like that. And then Harvey taking down the names, and then, that morning, saying that we want to request mass. So, to them, they saw this going in the direction of something bigger than they would like to see.
So that morning came. MPs, military police, came. Handcuffs. Took us to the commanding general. Finally got a chance to see him, right? And he read off a charge sheet. He said in essence we had violated the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to counsel, urge, cause, and attempt to cause insubordination and refusal of duty.
To the brig we go. So me and Harvey are in the brig at Camp Pendleton. So we’re in there four months. By this time they’ve assigned us a young captain to represent us. This captain was basically just out of law school. He did not know anything about the First Amendment.
And court martial comes. They separate our two cases. They find out that we did not conspire with each other, so we had trials separately.
My trial lasted six days. Most of the Marines I had talked to were in Vietnam, so they had to bring them back to testify at my trial. They said, “Yes. Daniels told us not to go to Vietnam. He told us we should do this, we should do that.”
Well, I told them not to go. I may have told them that, if their convictions were such, but where did they bring them back from? They went to Vietnam. So apparently I wasn’t as effective as they thought I was, as the military thought I was.
But the military did say, “We have to make an example of Daniels and Harvey. We can not have other Marines thinking they can question authority.”
So after five or six days’ court martial. They sentenced me the 10 years. I was facing 70 years, because there were seven other Marines they said I had tried to influence, but they found some leniency in their heart, yeah, and gave me 10 years.
Harvey had his court martial. He received six years.
So here we go. I have 10 years. Harvey’s looking at six. We shipped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is when Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines … That’s where they send them for long sentences.
Guys are coming back from Vietnam. Rape. Murder. Cutting off women’s breasts. Sticking bottles up their vagina. The most sadistic things imaginable—and none of them had 10 years. I said, “How in the hell can you do this to another human being and get three or four years? All I did was open my mouth and I get 10!”
Well, I began to realize at that point what the military was most frightened of. They know how to handle a rapist. They know how to handle someone who kills and mutilates the body. But they don’t know how to deal with somebody who’s an independent thinker. That just messes up their damn plan.
So I began to say, “Oh hell no.”
I did not want the military representing me during the appellate process. My case, 10 years, would have to go to the CA, the convening authority, and then JAG, judge advocate general. And then, if they find sufficient errors, it would go to COMA, the court of military appeals. After that would be the United States Supreme Court.
I wrote the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Told them what my case was. “Sorry. Can’t help you.”
I wrote Ebony Magazine, a major black publication at that time. “Sorry. Can’t help you.”
I didn’t know who else to write, so I thought that was it!
And this other Marine said, “Have you written WICA [Work Injury Compensation Act]?”
He said, “Have you written the ACLU?”
I said, “What?”
“The American Civil Liberties Union. Sounds to me that you have a First Amendment case.”
So I painstakingly wrote this two-page letter, citing things from my court martial. Next thing I knew, they sent their legal director, Mr Melvin Wolf. I will never forget his name. This long-haired man came and said, “We’d like to represent you.”
I said, “My parents are blue-collar workers. I’m sure whatever you would charge, they could not afford.”
They said, “No, no, no. You’re doing us a favor. No. Just sign here and we’ll represent you.”
They began representing us. I have a scrap album, articles from The New York Times. Washington Post, British newspapers, The American Servicemen Union. So all these forces came together, and there’s one thing the military does not like is publicity that’s not in their favor.
So after about 21 months they let us out on bail. No money involved but they wanted to get us out of jail. Still in the military. They sent me to Quantico, Virginia. They said Harvey to Newport, Rhode Island. To keep us separated while waiting— while our case made it to the appellate process.
While I was at Quantico, Virginia … Quantico is where they trained the FBI, CIA, and a lot of other people are trained there. While walking around, I didn’t salute anybody. I didn’t salute second lieutenants, first lieutenants. I didn’t salute no damn body. And they would stop me, “Oh, Marine, you’re supposed to salute.”
I would just keep walking. Never got in trouble for that.
What I had on my wall in my barracks, I had these huge posters of Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Malcolm X. These are people I admired. I wasn’t concerned about putting women on my wall. That just wasn’t of interest to me. So I got in trouble for that.
I get in trouble to the point where they revoked my little bail and sent me back to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Harvey got in some trouble but he went over the hill.
So when our case finally went to the court of military appeals, they found enough errors in the trial itself that they reversed the findings, gave me 29— I got some back pay. It wasn’t full pay but I got a honorable discharge.
That experience strengthened me. Because when I was in jail those 20 months, as a Muslim, I knew that I would be tested. It’s easier to say that you profess a certain faith, you prefer certain ideologies, but unless you’re tested, you really don’t know what it’s all about.
It’s like Job. I think it was the devil who told God, “Job is praising you left and right, but if you remove that protective hedge, I believe I could get him to curse you.”
And God said, “Yeah, fine. You could do that, but just don’t kill him.”
Pestilence and poor health and Job stayed the course. So for me, being in jail, I’ve stayed the course and, when I got out, joined the Nation of Islam and became an activist in that respect.
I never went to the point though of hating white people. My attorney was white. The ACLU was essentially white. When they would have protest rallies outside the prison … And I forgot this part: They were white people in Kittery, Maine. You don’t have black folk that live up there. That’s white territory. This is the Northeast.
The jail was basically on an Island, and these white people had this huge sign that said, “Free Harvey and Daniels,” and they would sail around the prison. It was a great experience.
Being locked up reminded me of what Muhammad Ali said, “I’d rather be in jail fed than in Vietnam dead.”
And during this time I did not know about Ali having taken a stand and having refused to be inducted into the Armed Forces. So when I got out of jail, I just knew that I wanted to be a movement person for the rest of my life. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. In the work I’ve done in Africa. In the work I’ve done over here.
I’ve kind of settled down some here in Arizona and passed the baton on to the next— to the next generation. But I’m proud of having been a Marine. And when people asked me what did I do in the Marine Corps, I said, “I helped to make the First Amendment applicable to uniform personnel.”
And that’s what it did. If you go to the court of military appeals and look up Daniels vs. The United States of America, you’ll see that the legal precedent my case has established has ripplings to this very day to whoever decides to speak up.
Matthew Breems: Ahmad, after you got out of the military, what were some of the activities you did to help anti-war activism and the movement?
Ahmad Daniels: It wasn’t so much at that time that I began to deal with anti-war activists. At that time I started working during the day and I started going to college at night.
The college I attended, Borough of Manhattan Community College, had a scholarship program. They were sending 50 blacks to Africa. And I went to the interview. And when I walked out of that interview, I said, “Let me get my passport because I know I’m going to go. I’m going.”
So I ended up going. Fifty of us went to Ghana, all expenses paid, for 30 days. So we’d spend long hours of the night talking to people from Senegal, from Gambia, from all our other African countries. So my emphasis at that time was on Africans and African Americans.
It wasn’t until years later that I became involved … In fact, when I moved here, I became involved in the peace movement with the military, because I had come full circle at that time, and I began to realize that there were other Marines and Army and Navy personnel here in Arizona, in the Phoenix area, in the valley, who really felt strongly about the impact we could have. And that’s when I joined the peace movement here.
Matthew Breems: What was it that caused you to come full circle? You obviously were very passionate about the race issues in our country. How did that metamorphosis into military or war issues?
Ahmad Daniels: I began to see the parallels between racism and imperialism. I began to see, they both talked about power. They both spoke to control. They both began to take power into their own hands in an attempt to fashion a future that wasn’t natural.
And when I spoke with other white people who had been in Vietnam, who had done some of these horrendous things, then I began to realize that I have an obligation to begin to speak up, much like they have spoken up. And that’s where I began to get involved with the peace movement here.
I found like-minded people, where we could talk about anything, without anybody faking the funk or feigning a behavior or thought. “Oh, yeah, you know, I’m not racist. I’m not prejudiced. All of us bleed red blood,” and all that kind of stuff that I hear from whites so often.
Matthew Breems: What’s one of the most important things that you would share with people about the peace movement that you don’t think is verbalized, or there’s a lack of awareness on?
Ahmad Daniels: The peace movement is an essential part of America. Now, I know when it’s hard to use the word “peace” and “America” in the same sentence, because wherever there’s havoc being wrought in some way, shape, or form, America has played a part in that.
But the peace movement, unless they were at the table, the conversation would be somewhat one-sided. The peace movement— These are people who have been there. They followed the orders that their commanding officer gave them, but at some point that juncture came that they began to question, “Why am I here? What am I doing?”
These are not people who were cowards. It takes a lot of nerve to be able to say no to the whole military, to the whole government. When I saw “George Daniels vs. The United States of America,” I’m saying, that’s somewhat one-sided, to say the least. So it takes a heck of a lot of nerve to take a stand.
And it’s the addition of their voice, of our voices, that makes a conversation much more enriched, that makes it balance. It positions itself in a way that people who were open-minded will have to take a listen.
That’s what makes peace movements so important. That’s what veterans can do. They can enrich the conversation. They could bring a side that no one else— no civilian ever is going to bring and that you’ll never hear from the commanding officers who are in the position to do whatever the government wants them to do.
Matthew Breems: Ahmad, thank you so much for your insight and sharing your personal experiences and really your act of bravery to stand up at 18 against a military machine. That really is impressive. Thank you for sharing that with us today.
Ahmad Daniels: Thank you for the work that you do in getting word out to people about people like me and others. Because courage is the recurring theme here, and I think it manifests itself in so many ways. My way was just one of many.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.