In the summer of 1948 the United States, barely three years removed from World War II, clearly maintained the world’s most powerful armed forces. Assisting the American war effort had been thousands of Black men and women who served with distinction in each branch of the military, much like their ancestors had in almost every American conflict since Patriot Crispus Attucks was killed by British Soldiers during the Boston Massacre in 1770.
Still, ever since Attucks’s death, Black service personnel had been compelled to fight in separated units often led by white officers. Or, if they were attached to all White units, they served in support capacities as cooks, barbers, ditch diggers and the like.
The success of all Black units during World War II, and the valor of individual officers like Army Air Corps (later Air Force) General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., provided an opportunity for civil rights activists to seek full desegregation of the military. To this end, in 1946, Army General Alvan Gillem developed a committee to consider its position on race. The Gillem Committee concluded later that year that future policy should “eliminate, at the earliest practicable moment, any special consideration based on race.”
In 1947, Asa Phillip Randolph, the renowned civil rights leader, petitioned President Harry S. Truman for full desegregation. After a long, hard year of lobbying, on July 26, 1948–70 years ago today–Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which held:
“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.”
(Truman featured in the New York Times discussing his Executive Order above, and shaking the hands of an Air Force sergeant, below)
Two years after Truman’s Executive Order was signed, the Korean War became the first conflict in which Black and White armed service members fought and died side-by-side en masse. By 1954, a year after a cease-fire ended hostilities in Korea, the last all-black unit was dissolved but nevertheless, in military bases across the south, Black soldiers who commanded or fought alongside white soldiers on base, were still subjected to Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and White Citizens Council members who used violence to maintain the racial social order, as depicted below.
Lest we forget…