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THE NATION | THE MILITARY

The Real Heroes of Desegregation

July 26, 1998|Sherie Mershon and Steven Schlossman | Sherie Mershon and Steven Schlossman, professors at Carnegie Mellon University, are co-authors of "Foxholes and Color Lines: Desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces."

PITTSBURG — Today marks the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9981, President Harry S. Truman's 1948 directive to desegregate the military. So far, the event has not entered the American conscience as a historic landmark. Not enough gore or obvious anguish, perhaps.

Precisely what to celebrate remains controversial. Certainly, Truman was no paragon of racial sensitivity. He was not above referring to blacks in derogatory terms and he shared the widespread convictions of his time that blacks were generally inferior to whites and that blacks could not--and should not--achieve complete equality with whites in all aspects of American life.

The idea for the directive, furthermore, was not original to Truman. Political considerations certainly shaped his endorsement of it. The Democrats were actually last on board, following the Republican and Progressive parties, to support military desegregation during the hotly contested 1948 presidential campaign.

The boldness of the executive order might be more apparent today if it had explicitly challenged segregation. But it conspicuously avoided the "S" word in favor of guaranteeing "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." The door was thus opened for the Army, in which the great majority of blacks served, to deny that the order required desegregation at all. Ultimately, the Army did integrate, but only in spite of its top brass and because the Korean War intervened.

Is there nothing heroic, then, to commemorate the motives, politics or implementation of Truman's directive? There certainly is, but only if we refocus on black, rather than white, leadership in spearheading the move toward military desegregation.

The order represented the culmination of a decade of pressure from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the black press to ensure blacks representation and opportunity within the nation's armed forces. Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, T. Arnold Hill, William H. Hastie, Truman Gibson, Marcus Ray, Lester Granger, John Sengstacke, Robert Vann and many others deserve primary credit for raising the inequitable treatment of blacks in the military to national political consciousness by the late 1940s.

Blacks virtually had been ostracized from the military after World War I. In 1940, they comprised only 2% of the Army and the Navy. No blacks were allowed in the Army Air Corps or the Marines, and blacks in the Navy were only allowed to serve in the steward's branch as cooks, mess attendants and personal valets. In the Army, blacks were largely excluded from combat arms and relegated to service and supply units. If top military brass had had their way, blacks would have played little combat role in World War II.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, could not remain indifferent to blacks' complaints. Interwar migration of blacks from the rural South to urban and industrial areas had reshaped the political landscape in such key electoral states as Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York. Roosevelt's coalition depended on substantial black support and he could not take the black vote for granted.

Just a month before the 1940 presidential election, Roosevelt scurried to meet black leaders' demands. He promised proportional representation (10%) for blacks throughout the Army, forced the Air Corps to create separate black aviation units (the Tuskegee Airmen) and ordered the War Department to accept Judge Hastie as its first civilian aide on Negro affairs. A week before the election, he also made Col. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. the first black general in U.S. history, even though Davis had been rejected for promotion several weeks earlier.

While these steps won much praise in the black community, they did nothing to temper the vigilance of civil-rights organizations throughout the war. The NAACP declared military racial policies to be the primary focus of its activities; the Pittsburgh Courier, which was informally banned on several bases, published countless articles and letters detailing the discrimination faced by black servicemen.

Symbolically, the black community's complex perspective on the war was represented best by the "Double V" campaign, which the Courier launched in 1942 to indicate that blacks were fighting simultaneously for victory over totalitarianism abroad and victory over racial discrimination at home. In practice, civil rights leaders proved ready to seek corrective action whenever the military showed signs of backsliding in its already limited commitment to blacks.

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