On July 26th, 1948, President Harry S Truman issued Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the military.
“Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense,” the order begins, ”… 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.”
African-Americans had, of course, long served in the armed forces of the United States. Nearly 5,000 African-Americans served in the American Revolution, and during the Civil War, the proportion of African-Americans serving in the military reached all-time highs. But it is relatively recent that the proportion of African-Americans serving in the military has begun to match the proportion of African-Americans in society as a whole.
When government agencies talk about Civil Rights in their official histories, the struggle is often portrayed as a linear progression: race relations were bad once, but after a lot of hard work by a lot of good people, everything is now great.
This, of course, ignores the complexities of history and the reality of demographics. There are no simple conclusions to be drawn about how the United States has treated its veterans who happen to be ethnic minorities.
Take, for example, the story of the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Henry Ossian Flipper. Lieutenant Flipper survived the rigorous winnowing process of the Academy, only to be drummed out of the military three years later. Flipper was court-martialed for embezzlement, on fraudulent charges. Despite his acquittal of the embezzlement charges, Flipper was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and was summarily dismissed.
A similar case of prejudice overcoming institutional safeguards occurred during the Korean War, shortly after Truman desegregated the military. The 24th Infantry Division, an all-black unit of the U.S. Eighth Army, was rushed to the front lines of the conflict in 1950.
Two months later, the commanding general of the Eighth Army asked that the unit be disbanded for poor performance in combat. Instead, it was withdrawn to a reserve position. But for years, the story of the “failure” of the 24th Infantry was used to justify racial discrimination. Subsequent investigations into the 24th Infantry’s performance during the war have revealed numerous problems with morale, training and leadership – problems amplified by poor race relations between predominately white officers and the black soldiers. It was not a simple question of race.
Despite these stories of prejudice and woe, African-Americans serving in the armed forces have left an indelible mark on our society. From the famed “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, to General Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, African-American soldiers have served their country with distinction and pride. And military service was long seen as the gateway to greater equality and opportunity for African-Americans.
“I … urged every man who could to enlist to get an eagle on his button, a musket on his shoulder, the star-spangled banner over his head, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States,” wrote Frederick Douglass in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
The Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was a veteran, having served as an Army sergeant during World War II. Oliver L. Brown, who as the father of a young student lent his name to the landmark Civil Rights case Brown v. The Board of Education, was also a veteran.
So was Jackie Robinson, who in 1944 was a young officer stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. It was there where Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus – a bus that was officially supposed to be desegregated. After a confrontation with a military police officer, Robinson was taken into custody and charged. He was later acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel of officers, but his career had been damaged by the time he spent fighting the charges.
“It was a small victory, for I had learned that I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home;” Robinson later said.
Today, as a whole, the military performs fairly well in terms of integration. Black women are overrepresented as a proportion of society in the military, in both enlisted and officer ranks – and they comprise about 34 percent of the enlisted ranks, compared to about 13 percent of society as a whole.
Black men are represented proportionally in the enlisted ranks, but are underrepresented in the officer ranks – making up only nine percent of all officers. Most of these black officers are junior ranks, and few are likely to make a career out of the military.
The military, as an institution, is a reflection of the society that it serves. This is particularly the case in the U.S., which since 1973 has had an all-volunteer service.
But is that reflection one we want to look at? America defeated the enemy in one of Jackie Robinson’s two wars. Has it defeated the other?