Military has been Desegregation Model

[More than] Fifty years ago, on July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981. The order brought an end to racial segregation within the ranks of the United States military forces. The written document contained six paragraphs with less than 250 words.

Executive Order 9981 addressed four areas: First, it declared the President’s policy of equality of opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. Second, it created the President’s seven-member Committee on Equality of Treatment in the Armed Services. Third, it authorized the Committee to examine existing rules and determine what changes would be necessary to carry out the policy of integrating the services. And fourth, it directed all executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government to cooperate with the Committee in its work.

President Truman held views about race and civil rights similar to other southern politicians of his time. This being the case, why was he different? What was the driving force behind his decision to integrate the military? There is no simple answer, or maybe there is.

One year earlier on June 28, 1947, while speaking at the Thirty-eighth Annual Conference of the NAACP, President Truman provided delegates a glimpse of the future. In his speech about “civil rights and human freedom,” Truman congratulated convention delegates gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for what he called “the effective work for the improvement of our democratic processes.”

He won their allegiance when he said, “It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our efforts to guarantee a freedom and equality to all our citizens… And when I say all Americans–I mean all Americans.”

In February of the next year, (Feb. 2, 1948) President Truman did something no previous President had ever done: he sent Congress a special message on civil rights. He proposed a ten-point program, which included provisions for an anti-lynching law, an anti-poll tax law, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, a Commission on Civil Rights, home rule for the District of Columbia and desegregation of the armed services.

The morning he sent his message to Congress, Truman wrote in his diary that members no doubt would receive his message coldly. “But it needs to be said,” the President concluded. He underestimated the reaction in the congress. Critics on Capitol Hill easily stopped his proposals.

But the issue of civil rights rose again at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in early July 1948. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey stunned party regulars when he engineered the adoption of a civil rights plank that was stronger than the one proposed by Truman. In response to Humphrey’s coup, many of the southern delegates walked out of the convention hall.

Some historians believe President Truman had hoped to unite the Democratic Party by promising civil rights to African Americans, but not pushing so fast as to alienate segregationists. That was not to be the Truman legacy. Instead, renegade southern Democrats formed the Dixiecrat Party and nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president.

Despite all these events, and with his civil rights legislative proposals bogged down in congress, President Truman decided to desegregate the United States Armed Forces by executive order. This decision surprised both liberals and conservatives. Army General Omar Bradley, warned, that it was not the business of the armed services to conduct “social experiments.”

Notwithstanding General Bradley’s public admonition, the armed services marched forward and implemented the desegregation policy. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, the U.S. military was almost completely desegregated.

Today, thanks in large measure to President Truman’s gutsy decision to do the right-thing, the U.S. military is a paradigm of institutional racial integration, a 50-year-old role model. One with a path to success, that would be a wise choice to follow, for the many public and private institutions that seem unable to modify their racist policies.


Originally Published: 4 August 1998, Montgomery Advertiser

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