Last updated: June 5, 2020
When Robert Simmons, an African American man from Savannah, Georgia, was brought to the foggy, windswept island of Alcatraz in the winter of 1918, he was thrown into the “hole,” a pitch-dark dungeon cell with slimy walls, crawling with rats. He was held there for 14 days.
Simmons was a Conscientious Objector (CO) who opposed war and refused to fight on the battlefields of World War I.
When World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914, a great debate unfolded in the United States as to whether the U.S. should enter the war. President Woodrow Wilson finally decided to declare war on April 6, 1917 – but the country was still divided. Many political, labor and religious organizations opposed the war and urged their members not to fight. In response, the government passed laws that forced conscription, criminalized dissent and jailed many who took anti-war positions.
There was great unrest in the African American community at the time of Wilson’s declaration of war. Jim Crow laws condemned Blacks to the poorest conditions in cities and rural areas alike. The U.S. Supreme court ruled that segregation was the law of the land. The rise of white vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized Black communities, burning churches and homes and lynching thousands.
While some Black leaders encouraged men to join the military to prove their patriotism, others urged them not to fight abroad when there was no democracy or justice for Blacks at home. As one African American newspaper wrote: “The Negro may be choosing being burnt by Tennessee, Georgia or Texas mobs or being shot by Germans in Belgium.”
Although 290,000 Blacks were conscripted, military units were completely segregated. Some trains carrying Black troops were fired on when they passed through southern towns.
Perhaps all of this was on Robert Simmons’ mind when he was conscripted and sent to fight in France. When he refused, declaring himself a Conscientious Objector, he was subjected to a court martial (a military trial) and sentenced to prison.
At Alcatraz, then a military prison, Simmons was one of 30 COs – both political and religious. Simmons was one of the “absolutists,” CO’s who refused to obey any military order – whether putting on a uniform or joining a work gang. Every time they refused to comply, their sentences were extended. When they were released from the dungeon, they were placed in “iron cages,” cells where they were forced to stand, chained to the cell door, unable to sit or even turn around, for eight hours a day.
Their protests brought outside investigators to Alcatraz from church groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who documented the brutal conditions and complained to the federal government. The dungeons were not abandoned until the ACLU forced a high-level military inspection of the prison.