By Ralph E. Moore Jr.,
Special to the AFRO
African Americans have served in every military conflict in United States history, volunteering and insisting–at times–to be allowed to enlist. It has not been easy for Blacks to fight for freedom overseas while being denied freedom at home. It was not comfortable (to put it mildly) to fight against racism, antisemitism and Nazism around the globe during World War II –when here at home, everything from schools and houses to jobs and hospitals were not accessible to African Americans. The irony was not only striking– but also quite painful. Rather than gratitude, Black soldiers were disrespectful after their sacrifice and rejection when they returned home.
All that may be hard to believe to some, considering that 75 years ago this month, the United States military was officially desegregated on July 26. Up to that point, White and Black soldiers were separated by living quarters, duties and advancement opportunities.
It was President Harry S. Truman who signed the 1948 executive order that desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces. According to the National Archives, just seven years earlier, Black Americans were 10 percent of the population of the United States, meaning 12.6 million citizens out of the total U.S. population of 131 million at the time. More Black people were in or worked for the Army at that time than any other public or private employer.
FDR opened the door to desegregation, but Truman walked America through it seven years later. Truman’s order followed an earlier executive order by Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) who, on June 25, 1941 ordered the admission of African Americans into job training programs in defense plants. It was FDR that also made sure Black people were considered for contracts and jobs with contractors with the U.S. Department of Defense. The order also created the Fair Employment Practices Commission, also known as FEPC, which operated to stop discrimination against Blacks in government jobs. FDR didn’t order racial integration of the armed forces, but he started the process by ordering the end of discrimination in military operations that interacted with Blacks.
Once World War II ended, Congress saw no need to continue the FEPC and therefore ended it. In response, Truman, in 1946, created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Inching toward desegregation before actual integration, Truman’s commission attempted to protect the civil rights of all Americans. The committee issued a report, “To Secure These Rights” in 1947, calling for laws against poll taxes and lynching, strengthening the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division and making FEPC a permanent agency of the government.
Southerners in Congress resisted Truman’s efforts to make laws of his commission’s proposals. In fact, they threatened to filibuster his legislation; so Truman used his executive power to bring about change. Then, against the threat of filibuster by southern senators of his proposed legislation, he issued Executive Order 9981 integrating all branches of the armed forces. The order stated, “…there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The changes in military policy were monitored by a presidential advisory committee that recommended revisions to the military regulations at the time that would make desegregation happen.
The committee was chaired by former Solicitor General Charles Fahy and was terminated on May 22, 1950 with a final report, “Freedom to Serve.”
Racial integration of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines was not easy. It was met with resistance from the ranks of enlisted men and women to the flag ranks where generals and admirals are frequently southerners. Still, Truman was determined to achieve civil rights for all with the U.S. military as his starting point.
Ironically, as recorded in the Truman Library, Truman was known to voice racial prejudices before he became president. He used the n-word, frequently told racist jokes and was openly opposed to sit-in demonstrations and interracial marriage. He considered Martin Luther King Jr. a troublemaker. As a young man, Truman once wrote in a June 22, 1911 letter to the woman he would eventually marry, Bess, “It is race prejudice, I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, Yellow men in Asia and White men in Europe and America.”
Growing up in a segregated town in Missouri, Truman was born on May 8, 1884, about 20 years after the Civil War ended. His grandparents on both sides were owners of enslaved persons. And yet Harry Truman eventually grew out of his racist upbringing.
“Despite this, he became president of
] United States, who for the first time since the Reconstruction Period immediately following the Civil War, committed the government of the United States to the realization of civil rights for African Americans,” Raymond H. Geselbracht, editor of “The Civil Rights Legacy of Harry S. Truman,” said in 2010 of Truman’s heritage.
Truman converted to a more positive view of race relations while president. He received a July 18, 1946, letter from R.R. Wright, a Black officer in the military telling about a Black veteran of World War II, Isaac Woodard.
A few months earlier, Woodard, a sergeant who was a combat veteran of the Pacific theater, was pulled off a bus in South Carolina and blinded and beaten by police. The story disturbed President Truman, and out of his high regard for veterans he changed. He began to actively pursue civil rights for all Americans.
Truman achieved a change of heart, like Saul on the road to Damascus. He evolved as a human being, just as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (also known as Malcom X) did on his journey to Mecca. Truman is proof that there is hope for others to turn and face a new direction. We can not only hope, but we must do all we can to work for a better tomorrow.
Today, the secretary of defense is a Black man, Lloyd J. Austin III. A West Point graduate, he was sworn in by President Biden on Jan. 22, 2021. If the Senate confirms Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., another Biden nominee, to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s military and Department of Defense could be under the direction of two Black men.