Until 1948 America’s armed forces, no exceptions, were segregated, and it was carefully embedded in the rules and culture of the organization.
The Army had “Colored” divisions and “White” divisions. In the Navy, Blacks could serve only in units that loaded and unloaded cargo or work as cooks. There had been breakthroughs. The Air Force, which only the year before became a separate branch of the military, had African-American pilots who were officers. They started as the famous Tuskegee Airmen.
It had been this way for generations. Even in the Civil War, when African-Americans made up a tenth of the Union’s fighting forces, they functioned in segregated units.
The segregation included the formal kind and certainly the social kind. Blacks in America’s military were second-class citizens. Opportunities for advanced technical training and promotion to the officer ranks were scarce.
That didn’t all change in one single day, but the tide most certainly turned when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, formally integrating the nation’s armed forces. That’s one of the remarkable things about the military. Orders are given and orders are followed. Thanks to the feisty president from Missouri nothing would ever be the same again.
Of course, in the America of the late 1940s, there was resistance. Southern congressmen were adamantly opposed to the idea. There were hearings and hand-wringing, but Truman didn’t back down. He even fired his secretary of the Army, Kenneth Royall, for not moving fast enough with an integration plan.
By the time we entered the Korean War, our armed services were almost entirely integrated. The sudden, almost overnight need for combat soldiers did away with much of the resistance to mixing the races.
An old friend of mine was a sergeant in an Army aviation company that was ordered to integrate in 1948. My friend had served in World War II, worked with Black soldiers, and was pleased the Army was finally integrating his ranks. However, that wasn’t true for a number of his fellow white non-commissioned officers (NCOs). During their first week as an integrated unit, the company commander suggested that during mealtimes the white NCOs needed to sit with their African-American counterparts. “Let them get to know you.”
Several of the men said they weren’t sure they could do that.
The captain, probably expecting this, said he understood. They didn’t have to do it if they didn’t want to, but then assuming a firmness they knew all too well, “be advised, gentleman, if you don’t do this, and don’t help me in integrating this unit, you’ll be out of the Army before the sun comes up tomorrow.”
It worked, and the company integrated with relatively little difficulty. The methods the military use to obtain cooperation sometimes aren’t subtle, but they do work.
Integration of the Armed Forces preceded integration in civilian America by almost two decades. That’s another aspect of military life many civilians don’t appreciate. Social change in a structured, orders-based society can happen quickly and far faster than it can in the civilian world.
However, while military bases might have been integrated, many of their adjacent communities, particularly in the South, were decidedly segregated. Black and white soldiers and their families could socialize on base, use the same pools in the summertime, and go to the same churches, but when they left their base, it was a world of harsh and rigidly enforced segregation. This was and, some would argue still is, a source of continuing tension.
Racism, extremism in the ranks and a scarcity of African-Americans in senior leadership are still problems in the 21st century. While the military can set its own rules and force change in a way no other American institution can, it is still a microcosm of our society – complete with all its foibles and failings.
Still, there is still something delightfully satisfying in the fight against racism to recall President Truman’s declaration ordering this evil business to stop. Truman’s order came six years before Brown v. Board of Education, which began the process of desegregating schools, and 16 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Truman never backed down, and nor did the thousands of African-Americans who, thanks to his order, were the first of their race in so many military jobs and positions of leadership in the years to follow.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.