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US military integrated 75 years ago under President Truman. Here’s why

When President Harry S. Truman addressed the NAACP in June 1947, becoming the first United States president to address a Civil Rights organization, he said he believed the country had reached a turning point: It was time to grant freedom and equality to all citizens.

“All Americans enjoy these rights,” he told the group. “And when I say ‘all’ Americans, I mean all Americans.”

A year later, on July 26, 1948, Truman issued an executive order calling for the desegregation of America’s armed forces, a historic gesture that, while putting Truman’s political future at risk, would set the stage for Civil rights advances of the 1950s and 1960s and alter the nation’s political landscape.

“There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion and national origin,” Executive Order 9981 declared.

The order marked not only a watershed moment for the military but a sea change in the 20th century Civil Rights Movement, said Robert Jefferson, an assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

“From that point on, America’s democratic principles would be reflected and embodied in its commitment to all citizens, not just a few,” Jefferson said.

Biden to keynote symposium on legacy of Truman’s order

President Joe Biden will be a keynote speaker at a three-day public symposium marking the 75th anniversary of the event, starting Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The free event, organized by the Truman Library Institute, will feature military leaders, elected officials, journalists and historians in panel discussions examining the legacy of Truman’s landmark decision.

“He stepped forward and placed himself directly in the line of fire — even putting his reelection in jeopardy,” said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, the symposium’s honorary co-chair, in a news release announcing the event. “His decision to eliminate racial discrimination within America’s armed forces was a true display of moral leadership — and a monumental contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.”

Symposium participants include Rep. James Clyburn, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel of South Carolina, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan, with video remarks from former President Barack Obama.

Fighting for freedom abroad − and then at home

Truman’s executive order evolved from a confluence of circumstances, including growing Cold War pressures, concerns over military manpower, election year gamesmanship, activism by civil rights pioneers like A. Phillip Randolph and Mary Mcleod Bethune, and Truman’s own convictions about race and social justice.

“The real impetus was World War II,” said Kyle Longley, a professor of history at Chapman University in Orange, California. “Black people fought and died. When they went to Europe they were not treated as second-class in countries like England and France – then they’re asked to return home to a Jim Crow society.”

The ongoing “Double V” campaign had advocated for the rights of Black American soldiers who were defending United States interests abroad but was subject to secondary status at home. And Truman, a veteran of World War I, was moved by the 1946 beating and blinding of Black veteran Isaac Woodard by South Carolina police even as he was in uniform, an assault that sparked national fury.

“The lethal vitriol that Jim Crow’s defenders unleashed on African Americans in the postwar moved Truman to act,” said Adriane Lentz-Smith, an associate professor of history at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

In 1946, Truman created the first President’s Committee on Civil Rights to assess American civil rights and propose measures to strengthen and protect them. The group’s 1947 landmark report, “To Secure These Rights,” called for equal voting rights, equal employment and creation of a civil rights division under the Department of Justice to combat lynching and other hate crimes against Black people.

Truman’s sense of moral responsibility, Lentz-Smith said, aligned with certain political considerations: Such a gesture could help woo Black voters and shore up America’s democratic bonafides as it pushed for Western decolonization of Asian and African nations amid the beginnings of the Cold War.

“The executive order signaled that African Americans’ activism had effects at the highest reaches of state power and reaffirmed that the federal government had a role to play in securing civil rights,” Lentz-Smith said. Truman’s action, she said, “showed how the presidency could be more ally than adversary.”

Recognizing a growing political force

Black people who’d migrated to urban areas like Detroit, Los Angeles and New York City to work in defense industries had become a growing political force, said Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

“He recognized that Black voters would be increasingly important to the future of the Democratic Party,” said Delmont, author of “Half-American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.”

But Truman knew his action would also come with consequences, spurring strong pushback from Southern Democrats not ready to embrace equal rights. The so-called Dixiecrats, led by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and others, would pull away in defiance, ultimately transforming national politics.

“These were Southern Democrats that later became Southern Republicans, who are now the cornerstone of the Republican Party,” Longley said.

Overcoming initial military resistance

Instead, Truman won the 1948 presidential election in a squeaker while making significant progress on civil rights issues.

Some military branches – in particular, the Army and Marines – were initially resistant to Truman’s order and integration wasn’t complete until the early 1950s, according to Longley.

“The stroke of a pen doesn’t do anything to change the culture,” Longley said. “High-ranking brass were just dragging their feet, making the same arguments that would later be made against women and gays. They said, ‘If you put these people into our units it will destroy morale,’ or ‘You’re putting in inferior people.’ But you also had others saying, ‘No, this makes sense; they just need proper training and leadership.’”

Once in place, the military was more integrated than many American institutions, including most colleges and universities, a symbol of what the country could be.

And the move, Delmont said, did make the military more effective: Before desegregation, Black men and women with science and technical backgrounds had been assigned to menial roles as cooks and ditch diggers, “so even some branches were reluctant at first, they eventually recognized that desegregation is good for the armed forces.”

Clifton Truman Daniel, Truman’s eldest grandson and honorary chair of the Truman Library Institute, said his grandfather’s actions cemented his legacy as a president committed to civil rights.

“My grandfather did what Congress would not,” Daniel said. “He desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces and signaled that Americans could no longer reconcile racial inequity with the values our nation had fought to uphold.”

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US military integrated 75 years ago under President Truman. Here’s why


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