Poindexter Williams

During these dog days of summer, I find myself flipping through the TV stations, listening to the squabbling among the talking heads about what to do in Iraq and alternatively reliving my teenage years with CNN’s series on the Sixties.

Vietnam has been featured prominently in both venues.   Will we repeat the mistakes we made in Vietnam by putting in more troops in Iraq?  CNN’s portrayal of the Vietnam War also brought back personal memories that put Fort Pierce in the national news in a very bad way.   While in high school in the late 60s I worked part-time for Hillcrest Memorial Gardens on North U.S.1 between Vero and Fort Pierce.   My job was to call residents to let them know that any serviceman killed during the Vietnam War would receive a free burial plot at Hillcrest.

During the evening hours my friend, Pam Rose, who worked with me, and I would receive a list of people to call.   Then before leaving the small office at the cemetery, the manager would give us another directive. “Remember, if a black person picks up the phone, just hang up,” he said.  The free plot offer wasfor whites only.

Even though I held that job 45 years ago, I was still astounded at the blatant discrimination against blacks.   And I certainly did not keep quiet about it.   Pam and I would make those calls, but also took a few “breaks” to call our friends.  We didn’t know it, but all of our calls were being recorded.  The rants about the anti-black policy to my friends got me fired.   The termination did not bother me in the least.

And I felt vindicated a year later, when Hillcrest and that policy made national news when the cemetery owners refused to bury a 20- year- old GI named Poindexter Williams.   Williams was serving with the 1st Air Calvary Division in Vietnam in 1970  when he was killed in a mortar barrage.   He was also black.  The rest of the country watched as the legal wrangling about a soldier’s burial in Fort Pierce cemetery made the nightly news.

I can’t recall exactly what the final outcome was, but Poindexter Williams had a huge funeral in Fort Pierce’s National Guard Armory that was well televised.   And 20 years later, when I first visited the Vietnam War Memorial, I quickly found his name and traced it on paper as a keepsake.

So much has changed since Poindexter Williams’s mother challenged a small town cemetery in the early 1970s.   Lincoln Park and Dan McCarty high schools were combined to conform with a federal court anti-segregation order.   The “White” and “Colored” signs over water fountains in downtown stores were eventually removed.   Hillcrest was sold to a very reputable funeral home business.

But some things never seem to change.   Again the United States is embroiled in another controversy over its role in what is becoming a civil war in a country on the other side of the world.  President Lyndon Johnson worried about the integrity of his advisors who were selling him on Vietnam.

We now know the premises of going to war with Iraq were wrong.  There were no weapons of mass destruction, nor was there any Iraqi involvement in 9/11.
Johnson realized he could not untangle the quagmire of Vietnam and decided to just get out. He retired to his Texas ranch rather than run for a second term.   As we debate whether the 4,000 plus U.S. and allied soldiers will have died in vain if we pull out of Iraq now, I think about Poindexter Williams and wonder how his family felt when we left Vietnam three years after his death. I hope they are consoled knowing that Poindexter Williams’ death did lead to meaningful changes in his hometown.   It  helped expose a nasty, racist policy during an unpopular war.   And, at the time, it forced the people of Fort Pierce to ask—is this the way we treat a soldier who has given his life for his county?   Indeed, no matter how Vietnam ended, Poindexter Williams’ death was not in vain.