On this day in 1948, President Harry S. Truman issues Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial segregation in the U.S. military. Covering as it did an enormous swath of the economy and labor force, at a time of acute visibility for the military, many see this act as one of the most powerful government efforts ever taken to effectuate equality and opportunity.
Beginning with the initial skirmishes at the dawn of the American Revolution, including the murder of Cripus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, African Americans had played an important role in the armed forces of the United States. A slave identified as Prince Easterbrooks was one of the first casualties at the Battle of Concord, and thousands of African Americans, both free and enslaved, fought with distinction alongside their white counterparts throughout that war. That level of integration in the Continental Army, however, would not be duplicated in the U.S. military again until the 1950’s.
The modern path to official integration began with the signing of Executive Order 8802 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1941. This signaled the end of racial discrimination in our defense industry, but the armed forces generally hewed to a policy of segregation throughout the duration of WW2. The efforts of the National Urban League, the NAACP and civil rights leaders such as A. Philip Randolph spurred Truman to extend the protections afforded to African Americans in the civilian Department of Defense to the uniformed military.
In April 1946 a review board chaired by Gen. Alvan Gillem, Jr., advised that the army’s policy should be to “eliminate, at the earliest practicable moment, any special consideration based on race.” While the Gillem Board did not specifically endorse integration, it did note that the army had already desegregated its hospitals because of the unnecessary cost and inefficiency created by the maintenance of separate facilities for white and black patients; notwithstanding, even blood stores were still stocked separately by “race.”
Later in 1946 Truman convened the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. That group’s landmark report, To Secure These Rights, was released in October 1947, and proposed “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin, in the organization and activities of all branches of the Armed Services.” Facing resistance from Southern senators, Truman side-stepped a threatened Senate filibuster by issuing Executive Order 9981, integrating the armed forces by Article II fiat, and establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.
The initial response to the order was mixed. The navy, which had maintained some degree of integration throughout its history, ships being generally cramped spaces, proved the most accommodating branch, though African Americans remained primarily concentrated in the separate Steward’s Branch in the short term. The Marine Corps, our smallest of the armed services, and the Air Force, newly broken off from the Army, responded to integration as a matter of efficiency.
By contrast, the army stubbornly opposed the change, with Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall going so far as to state in 1949 that the army “was not an instrument for social evolution.” Nevertheless, the President’s Committee pressed the army to accept integration. Ultimately, losses in the Korean War rendered the discussion moot, as under-strength white units were forced to accept black recruits to maintain combat effectiveness.
In October 1953 the army announced it had finally integrated more than 90 percent of black troops in its ranks. While one might wryly observe that this acquiescence came at an opportune time for the coming war in Indochina, it remains a critical step in the profound struggle that continues to this very hour.