Race riots shape Travis' history

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Nicole Leidholm
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
While race relations on base may not be as strong of an issue as they were during the Vietnam War, it was because of the Race Riots here that the Equal Opportunity office was created.
In extreme cases, these problems can proliferate outside the individual workplace and harm an entire base. The race riots of 1971 here are a prime example of what can happen when workplace equality concerns are ignored.

On May 25, 1971, Travis experienced a weekend of disturbances with racial overtones. Altercations in the 1300 barracks area and the enlisted club led to violence. A blaze started on the top floor of a transient barracks in the bachelor officer quarters area. Eventually there were 135 arrests, 10 people were injured and a civilian firefighter died.

"We in the Air Force are very much aware of the seriousness of the racial problems in the United States and now it has spilled over into the Air Force," said Maj. Gen. William Moore Jr., 22nd Air Force commander, in a 1971 press conference. "We cannot tolerate such activities on a military base. I am devoting my entire effort to preventing a recurrence."

According to the Oakland Tribune, it started when a white Airman was kicked by a black Airman in a barracks fight. That Sunday, two black Airmen were arrested for fighting with white Airmen and by Monday, tensions had grown stronger.

There was a fight in the mess hall followed by a march of black Airmen to the base blockade to "free our brothers." Groups of 50 to 75 Airmen formed and were involved in several confrontations. They were turned away by 300 military police near a base softball field, at which point the base called for help from civilian police.

The group turned and assaulted players on the softball field, obtaining several baseball bats they later used in assaults against individuals and privately owned vehicles. Groups entered base housing where they caused more damage.

Another group was gathered at The Snake Pit, the 60th Field Maintenance Group's snack bar, where Col. Iver Vollmer, the group's commander, was dragged from his car and beaten.

Later that night is when the fire broke out in the transient quarters where James Tyson Morsberger, 47, of Napa, died of a heart attack fighting the fire.

"Many of today's Airmen come from backgrounds which cause them to reject authority, question everything and accept nothing from any source," said Gen. Jack Catton, Military Airlift Command commander.

In an effort to open new and valuable communications link among officers, Airmen, squadron commanders and first sergeants, the wing established a Human Relations Council at Travis.

Many complaints from black Airmen were that they were treated differently than their white counterparts, such as in assignments, military justice and promotions.

The incidents however were not just white on black, they were whites on whites and blacks on blacks as well.

Today, the 60th EO office works to prevent hostile work environments by encouraging communication among all ranks. It is vital to successful communication regardless of interoffice hierarchy.

"It's hard to put different people together," said Mark Wilderman, 60th Air Mobility Wing historian. "You get someone from the city and put them with someone from (an impoverished area) who are being drafted into the military at this time and don't really want to be there anyway, it spells trouble."

It is events such as this that have shaped the Air Force we are in now.

"One of the biggest benefits we have in the military is how diverse we are," said 1st Lt. Jillian Saridaki, 60th EO deputy director, in a 2012 interview. "The more education the EO office is able to provide about that diversity, the stronger our overall force can become."