The Presidio 27 drew inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement they’d seen on TV — they sang We Shall Overcome, after all. And yet it is notable that their act of civil disobedience reveals a more complicated reality on the ground, in a very tense and complicated year, during a tense and complicated war.
None of the African Americans imprisoned in the stockade participated that day. Many prisoners of color in the stockade supported the Presidio 27, but they also knew, in the words of Joe Stephens, “that if we was in it, the MPs wouldn’t be so nonviolent…. [and] we figured we’d get punished worst.”
The outrage at killing Richard “Rusty” Bunch did cross racial lines: Reginald Bailey, a Black serviceman, made a dye out of shoe polish that he and his buddy Molton Lyles used to paint their prison armbands black, as an expression of collective mourning. Keith Mather and George Dounis joined them, as well as Jack Ortez, a Chicano soldier, and Mike Matos, a Puerto Rican combat veteran.
Among each other, Black servicemen had a culture of camaraderie that was distinct from the support they extended to all men in their unit.
In the video below, listen to SPC Frederik “Rik” Penn (101st Airborne), who is a Park Ranger at the Presidio now, having served in the U.S. National Park Service for over 24 years. In 1968, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He recalls his experience distributing the underground GI newspaper, “Bragg Briefs,” as well as how African American GIs had to navigate discipline in the Army.