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Blacks' Battle in Military Likened to Gays' : Armed forces: Activists point to parallels in arguing for an end to the Pentagon's ban on homosexuals. But African-American veterans of segregated units are divided over today's debate.

June 14, 1993|H. G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Charles M. Bussey noted that a recent national poll showed a 71% approval rating for Gen. Colin L. Powell, and reflected on his own 22-year career as an Army officer.

Although Bussey and Powell are African-Americans and both wore the same uniform, they served in different armies.

Powell, the nation's top military officer and the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed the Persian Gulf War.

Bussey enlisted during World War II, when the U.S. armed forces were segregated and blacks were rarely tapped to become officers.

What a difference 50 years has made.

In the eyes of the nation and, especially, the armed forces, the color of Powell's skin is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is his ability as a military leader.

Not so in the late 1940s and early '50s, when the military balked at integrating blacks into the armed forces, much the same way the U.S. brass are resisting admitting gays today.

"I saw this country throw away many brilliant young officers who could've been the first Colin Powell," said Bussey. "Their talents were ignored because their faces were black." Now, as the debate over the military's ban on homosexuals continues, some gay rights advocates are pointing to the long-ago experiences of African-Americans to support their position that discrimination--whether against blacks decades ago or gays today--is foolish and unjust.

" 'White soldiers will not shower or sleep in the same barracks as African-Americans. Mixing African-American troops with whites will weaken a unit's cohesion. ' These are arguments that opponents of integration were making 50 years ago," said David M. Smith, spokesman for the Campaign for Military Service, a coalition of gay and civil rights groups battling the Pentagon's ban on gays. "Substitute 'gay' and 'lesbian' and it's the same arguments being heard today. The common denominator is prejudice."

Supporters of the ban argue that it has little or nothing in common with the military's previous history of racial discrimination.

Black veterans of the segregated military, however, are divided on whether the Pentagon should lift its ban on gays, and whether homosexuals are battling the same type of discrimination that African-American servicemen had to overcome.

"I resent people who try to compare our situation with gays," Bussey said. "There's no similarity. Blacks couldn't hide their blackness. Gays are able to hide their sexual preference. The issues are nowhere near the same."

Before the armed forces finished integrating in 1954, institutional racism limited opportunities for hundreds of thousands of blacks such as Bussey.

Nevertheless, Bussey, now 71 and living in Riverside, persevered during those difficult times and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1966 after serving 22 years in the Army. Afterward, he worked as a construction engineer for the Bechtel Group and taught engineering at a community college in Alaska.

In the early years after integration, African-Americans who did get promoted to the ranks of officers seldom rose above lieutenant colonel because, like Bussey, few were given the opportunity to command a battalion. That lessened their chances for promotion to colonel and general.

Tom Gillis, former commander of the 24th Infantry Regiment--one of four all-black regiments authorized by Congress after the Civil War--said: "That's the way things were then. The Army was segregated from time immemorial."

Gillis, 80 and a resident of Greenbrae, Calif., retired in 1965 as a colonel after 30 years in the Army. A longtime supporter of integration, he led the 24th Infantry in the Korean War and was the last white officer to command an all-black regiment.

Bussey praised Gillis' ability as a commander but said segregation afforded some inferior white officers who commanded black units a "can't lose" opportunity.

"White boys got assigned to lead black units because they were either screw-ups or they weren't wanted anyplace else. . . . If a black unit screwed up, it was because . . . you couldn't expect any better from them. But if the unit excelled, it was because of the white leadership," Bussey said.

Clay Blair, author of "The Forgotten War," an acclaimed history of the Korean War, wrote that there was a longstanding belief in the Army that "Negroes won't fight." It was not until the Vietnam War, which ended 20 years ago, that thoroughly integrated armed forces fought side by side in a major conflict.

Striking similarities exist in the arguments used by military leaders to keep blacks out of the armed forces then, and gays out now.

Consider:

* An official policy statement issued in 1940 by the War Department (predecessor of the Defense Department) said that intermingling the races would "produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparation for national defense."

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