By Dr. Mark DePue
Vietnam veteran Connie Edwards may not have slogged through steaming jungles, or risked death while skimming over treetops in a helicopter during her tour in Vietnam from July 1967 to August 1968, but she none-the-less experienced her share of trauma while serving as a nurse with the 24th Evacuation Hospital. That experience was not the first time Connie was a witness to history, however. She grew up in a segregated neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of an African-American steel worker during the height of the civil rights movement.
Connie shared this story about her first brush with racism while spending time with her father at the tender age of three:
From that time on, life in segregated Birmingham was something Connie dealt with as a fact of life.
Connie met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1950s while serving ice cream in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church. She knew about Rev. King’s oratory skills at the time, but little else about him.
By 1961 Birmingham had become a center for the civil rights movement, galvanized by Rev. King, the inspiring civil rights spokesman. King, for his part, called Birmingham “the most thoroughly segregated city in the country.” Connie, a young teen, embraced the cause. When Freedom Riders came to town that year to challenge Alabama’s unconstitutional segregated busing policies, she and a friend found themselves caught up in one of the most chaotic moments of the Civil Rights movement.
Two years later Birmingham was once again the center of national attention following the tragic bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, resulting in the death of four young girls. By that time, Connie was a nursing student at prestigious Tuskegee University, attending school on a military scholarship. The scholarship was her lifeline to a better life, but it also obligated her to serve in the Army following graduation, and in the mid-1960s that probably meant service in Vietnam.
Tuskegee administrators were protective of their students, discouraging them from participating in the protests and demonstrations that continued to roil the nation. Connie remember well her disappointment in 1965 when school officials prevented students from joining James Bevel, John Lewis and hundreds of others as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
By July 1967 Second Lieutenant Edwards was in South Vietnam, assigned to the 24th Evacuation Hospital based north of Saigon. For the next twelve months she cared for hundreds of casualties, helping to heal their broken bodies and comfort their scarred souls. But her life in Vietnam was not all trauma, as this story about an incident that happened shortly after she arrived in country illustrates.
Connie remembers another incident in Vietnam for a very different reason, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968.
The encounter speaks volumes about the racial tensions that often simmered under the surface among the troops in Vietnam, but it also speaks to the comradery that soldiers shared with each other, forged while working side by side in circumstances where one’s character and competence trumped outside appearances.
By the early 1980s Connie was living in Chicago, teaching nursing at the University of Illinois – Chicago while also serving as a nurse in the U.S. Army Reserves. During this period Connie was surprised to encounter prejudice of a very different sort.
And when Connie’s daughter came home one day from pre-school crying, she once again took action.
“I’m very proud of my service,” Connie said while reflecting on her year in Vietnam, “and I’m proud now that I don’t have to hide the fact that I did it.” America has made significant progress in race relations since the 1960s, she asserts, progress gained by standing on the shoulders of those who led the movement when she was growing up.
Connie also readily acknowledges there is more work to be done. “I do see there are opportunities that I did not have. … Even though racism still exists right now, you have a greater choice of getting over that or getting through that, and you can get through it.”
Connie’s life exemplifies that belief. She has “gotten through it” by embracing Martin Luther King’s dream. She embraces that dream still to this day.
Mark DePue is director of the ALPLM's Oral History Program. You can hear all of Connie Edwards’ remarkable story at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.