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The US Armed Services Still Struggle for Equality

Seventy-five years later, President Truman’s military desegregation order has lessons to teach us.

Words: Jimmy Anderson
Pictures: Jared Short

Seventy-five years ago, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 to desegregate the US military. The order mandated equality of treatment for all military members regardless of race and color. It broke with America’s legal institution of segregation and ended racial segregation in the military. Prior to this order, service members of color could not serve within integrated units alongside white service members. It was a historic moment that had an immediate impact on the make-up of the military and had broader implications for the civil rights movement across sectors of America.

I came to learn about this Executive Order when I was working at the White House as the director of veterans engagement. A grassroots coalition of mostly Black veterans and veteran serving organizations led by a dynamic Air Force Brigadier General reached out to me inquiring about the Biden Administration’s plans to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the executive order. After spending over a decade serving in the US Air Force as a Black Airman, I was bereft to realize this historical event was confined to a simple footnote in the military training I received in my career. 

Now this historic moment takes on new light. The anniversary of its signing came at a time when the Department of Defense confronts wokeness accusations, criticisms of diversity, equity, and inclusion training, and anti-critical race theory fervor. In June, the US Supreme Court issued a majority opinion on SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC, reversing affirmative action in college admissions. And currently, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) is holding up hundreds of military promotions including historic nominations of the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Chief of Naval Operations to pressure the Department of Defense to change its abortion policy.

The armed forces desegregation case provides lessons for how US policymakers and the Department of Defense can advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the military. It highlights the importance of partnering with constituency groups and reframing the cultural memory of the armed services. 

LeMay and Lee

I spent the summer after my college sophomore year training in Montgomery, Alabama, to become an Air Force officer. For a mustang officer, it was reminiscent of boot camp. 

One day an instructor asked me to recite a General Curtis E. LeMay quote from the Air Force ROTC Field Training Manual. I did it, but with some ambivalence. The quote was well-known by cadets because it was easy to remember. It goes like this: “I don’t mind being called tough, because in this racket, it’s tough guys who lead the survivors.”

My ambivalence stemmed from LeMay’s past as a polarizing figure and more specifically, as a segregationist. LeMay was the running mate for the failed 1968 Independent Party run by staunch segregationist George Wallace. The Officer Field Training Manual also included quotes from Confederate General Robert E. Lee — even though he was not in the Air Force. 

One quote was attributed to General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., the first Black Air Force four-star General: “The power of excellence is overwhelming. It is always on demand, and nobody cares about its color.” A color-blind quote. Of all the quotes that Air Force ROTC could use from a well-known and dynamic civil rights pioneer, the quote selected was the one that reduced the significance of race in the military.

We were incorporating quotes from LeMay and Lee, with limited inclusion of leaders of color into training that develops the future of the force. 

It was puzzling. 

I remember thinking: Does the Air Force have any historical figures that look like me? Is this the Air Force in which I want to continue to make a career?”

But as I reflect on the 75th Anniversary of desegregation, I am reminded that the vestiges of a complicated past remain in the military and that the cultural memory of the military has yet to fully incorporate people of color. 

Pressure on Truman to Take Action  

After World War II, segregationists in the United States viewed Black service members and veterans as a significant threat to the era’s social order of segregation. Black veterans returned from the war abroad, only to be lynched and brutally beaten on the home front. The beating and blinding of Black veteran Isaac Woodard by the police in Batesburg, South Carolina in February of 1946 is the most widely known instance of this.

Black civil rights leaders remembered the violent reassertion of the status quo as Black veterans returned from World War I. They responded to the increase in lynching, harassment, and police brutality by urging Truman to form the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. The committee produced the “To Secure These Rights” report, which highlighted the need to change policy to end discrimination in the armed forces. 

Truman’s motives for championing civil rights remain a constant source of historical debate due to racist comments he made over his lifetime. Truman’s decision to champion civil rights had three core drivers: the political advantages of securing the Black vote ahead of the 1948 general election, public pressure from civil rights groups, and the brutality and lynching targeting Black World War II veterans.

Truman’s endorsement of equality and engagement with Black civil rights groups led to a historic fracturing within the Democratic party. But it also secured the Black vote and electoral victory in the 1948 general election over Thomas Dewey. Political pressure from Black civil rights leaders and groups increased, pushing Truman to act on several demands, and desegregation of the Armed Forces was viewed as a reasonable action.

The signing of Executive Order 9981 was the second time a president used an executive order to administer a civil rights policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt previously signed Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. It was signed 44 days after Truman signed the Women Armed Services Integration Act into law on June 12, 1948. Truman’s executive order broke ranks with Congress and with his party.

Under Executive Order 9981, the president’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services focused on policies, practices, and procedures that the armed services had to change in order to implement full integration. The committee examined each of the service’s policies and discussed whether Black service members were “fit” to integrate and grappled with the question of whether integration would lead to efficiency across the services.

The Executive Order sent a clear message amid considerable resistance from both leadership and rank and file within the armed services. The US Army was notably reluctant to integrate, and the last desegregated unit was integrated in 1954. As part of the executive order, quotas on Black service members were also eliminated across the services.

The Korean War provided the first test bed of the potential for integration within an operational environment. A study was commissioned by the Department of Defense to study efficiency within integrated units during the Korean War. Their findings indicated that once and for all, integrated units were as effective in combat as desegregated units.

An Instrument of Social Evolution? 

Back in 1948, President Truman’s Secretary of the Army, Kenneth Royall, said “the army is not an instrument of social evolution,” as he expressed deep concerns over the adverse impacts that desegregation would have on soldier morale and enlistments. 

This sentiment mirrors what we hear today from commentators to members in Congress that believe the Department of Defense’s critical race theory and DE&I initiatives degrade military training and readiness. President Joe Biden’s Executive Orders on Advancing Equity and DEIA within the federal government have created a backlash as well. 

The 75th anniversary of the desegregation of the military can provide lessons for how the Biden Administration and the Department of Defense navigate DE&I, education, training, and equity initiatives in the armed services.

What Is Needed Today

Prior to the signing of Executive Order 9981, President Truman conducted meaningful engagement with civil rights groups to design what would be a meaningful engagement with the desegregation of the armed forces. This was a core item from the National Urban League and NAACP during the 1948 Presidential election. President Truman spoke at the NAACP conference and was the first sitting President to visit Harlem, a bastion of Black excellence.

When I was recently managing the White House’s relationships with veterans, military-connected, and constituency nonprofit groups and other organizations, I was often amazed at how robust the Department of Defense’s collaboration was with veterans, military families, and military service organizations. The Department of Defense, service leadership, and senior uniformed personnel must determine new ways to engage constituency groups that cater to specific diverse communities of service members.

Secondly, Black history should be taught in military training, and we need to inject the experiences of service members of color into our military’s cultural memory.

I remember thinking: Does the Air Force have any historical figures that look like me? Is this the Air Force in which I want to continue to make a career?”

From my time enlisted and as an officer in the Air Force, I can recall the stories we read of the military leaders that built our service: Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, Jimmy Doolittle, Lance P. Sijan, John Boyd, Curtis LeMay, Robin Olds, Chuck Yeager, and “Chappie” James, Benjamin O. Davis. 

All heroic stories — all were men, two were Black, both were General Officers. 

These stories were incorporated into core elements of basic military training and officer training. Their impact was reinforced throughout professional military education where servicemembers are developed. Each service has its heroes that are a part of the service’s cultural memory and fabric. 

Those heroes need to be more diverse and representative of communities of color, women, and, importantly, women of color. 

I recommend each Service assess ways to incorporate historical case studies within professional military education that focus on service members of color. These cases can help to bring cultural awareness to communities that may be unfamiliar with the stories. It can also foster a sense of belonging among populations that can see their stories within the history of our services. Chief among the cases should be Executive Order 9981, which can set a baseline understanding for future military leaders to understand why talking about race or DE&I training is important.

Isaac Woodard and George Floyd

The blinding of Black WWII veteran Isaac Woodard in Batesburg, South Carolina on February 12, 1946 by the local police captivated the nation. It was a tragedy that inspired civil rights groups and activists to rally around in their struggle towards equality. Truman was personally touched by this tragedy, and it inspired him to pursue desegregation. 

The murder of George Floyd reminds me of the blinding of Isaac Woodard. I was on active duty when it happened. I remember seeing so many white service members willing to openly discuss race. For the first time in my career, discussing race at work was not “off-limits.” Videos from leaders like the current Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Charles Q. Brown (and soon-to-be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) helped further the conversation. There was a sense of urgency to address injustice, have candid conversations, and address systemic issues centered on race in the military. But I fear that the momentum within our services has slowed.

We need a robust partnership between the Department of Defense and these types of constituency-based groups. The recent work of the Department of Defense’s Base Naming Commission was an important step towards removing symbolic vestiges of the past that alienate communities of color. The Department of Defense must work with community members as thought partners through a regular cadence of public engagement. Constituency groups can serve as reliable allies on Capitol Hill to combat misinformation and help the Department rebuild trust within those communities.

Instead of getting entangled with those who deny the value of teaching Black history or getting pulled into the debates about critical race theory, the Department of Defense can foster a new cultural memory within our services’ cultures that tells the complete story of all communities we raised our right hand to protect.

Or lose momentum – and miss our moment.

Jimmy Anderson

Jimmy Anderson served in the Biden administration as the director of veterans engagement at the White House. Prior to that, he served at the Department of Veterans Affairs as the Deputy White House Liaison and Special Advisor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He is also a prior-enlisted Captain in the Air Force Reserve stationed at the Pentagon and Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author alone.

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