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The Good Fight: Marking 50 Years of Desegregation in the Military

July 24, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."

--President Harry S. Truman

Executive Order 9981, July 26, 1948

In 1961, Johnnie Wilson, a black teenager from a small town in Ohio, began associating with whites in a way that would probably have shocked most of America and landed him in jail in other parts. He drank from the same water fountains, ate from the same tables and slept underneath the same roof as his white co-workers.

Ironically, this rebellious societal behavior transpired in one of the most conformist, regimented and conservative organizations in the country--the armed forces.

Before bus boycotts, before sit-ins, before Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became household names, the United States armed services began a slow march toward racial integration. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an order that marked the beginning of the end of the 150-year-old American military tradition of segregating units by race.

The order, quite simply, called for the desegregation of the armed services and a halt to quotas that restricted the number of blacks in the military. Although initially it did little to unify a racially divided military, the order today is widely praised as a pivotal first step in America's long walk toward achieving a just society.

"It's truly one of the most significant events in American history," said Charles C. Moskos, a professor at Northwestern University and a draftee in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s. "Even today, the Army is still the only institution in our society where blacks routinely boss around whites."

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Some 37 years after boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., Wilson knows plenty about bossing around people--of any color. As commanding general, U.S. Army Materiel Command, he oversees a department of 60,000 people with an annual budget of $9 billion. Without Truman's executive order, Wilson isn't sure whether he would have made it from buck private to four-star general.

"It may be many more years before the awesome impact of what he did is realized," said Wilson during a telephone interview earlier this week. "And I don't know if people have given President Truman the credit he deserves yet."

With the idea of lauding Truman and promoting itself too, the armed services will mark with celebration and ceremony the 50th anniversary of the historic signing this week in two cities. Today, top military leaders will be joined in Washington, D.C., by entertainers Isaac Hayes, Gladys Knight and Ossie Davis at Constitution Hall to commemorate the signing. The gala event follows a medals ceremony held Thursday for five African American soldiers who surrendered their rank in all-black outfits to join decimated white units during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Meanwhile, Birmingham, Ala., will host a four-day "World Wide Equal Opportunity Conference" beginning Sunday. The event is scheduled to draw such dignitaries as President Clinton, historian John Hope Franklin and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. It also is slated to tackle a wide range of related topics that include the status of race relations in today's armed forces, and how corporate America can use the Army model to diversify its work force.

"As an institution, we have led the way," said Wilson, who joined the military because his family couldn't afford to send him to college. "We have an advantage over Xerox and the other major corporations in developing a cohesive team. We have people's lives at stake."

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Integrating the military seemed a virtual impossibility more than 50 years ago to the more than 1 million black soldiers who served in segregated units during World War II. For Leonard Smith, then a teenager from Harlem with the 761st Tank Battalion in Europe, the divided Army was an embittering experience.

"We lived in tents and the whites had barracks. They had everything," recalled Smith, now 73 and living in Florida. "When we were stationed in Killeen, Texas, if you were caught in town after 10 p.m., they'd hang you. And off we went to fight for those people. Oh, that irked me so hard."

Even the few black officers in World War II, like Warren Taylor Sr., can easily recall the indignities of separate and unequal service. Taylor, an enlisted man who worked his way up to captain, endured racial epithets, intimidation and even one white officer who challenged him to a pistol duel in a Paris cafe.

Those painful memories contributed to his shock some three decades later when his tank unit received belated military awards for its heroic service in World War II. The room was filled with black officers.

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