7/24/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
During these heady days of promises of “hope and change,” many Americans, especially the young who are enamored of Sen. Barack Obama, are ignoring, and even dismissing, our history of civil rights.
Our memory of our civil rights history helps us understand the struggles and hard work of those who came before us, and it helps us appreciate our nation’s uniqueness in the world.
For this reason, everyone should be reminded that July 26 marks a special event in U.S. race relations. On that date in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which began an arduous process that would, over the next 17 years, fully integrate the nation’s military.
The document’s first paragraph, reflecting Truman’s personal morality, gave the military and the rest of the nation a mandate for change:
“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. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”
No one pretends that Truman was ahead of his time on race. He was not. His views on civil rights and race echoed those of most other politicians, even Southerners, of his generation. But Truman’s awareness of the crucial social and cultural forces afflicting and threatening the nation and his pragmatism distinguished the president from his contemporaries.
During a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1947 NAACP convention, Truman praised delegates for their “effective work for the improvement of our democratic processes.”
Then Truman said something that surprised his listeners and gave them hope that the plight of black people would improve under his presidency: “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 for all our citizens. And when I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.”
In 1998, then-Joint Chiefs of Staff historian Mickey Schubert told the American Forces Press Service that a convergence of several events influenced Truman.
“America had just fought a war against militarism and racism overseas, making it hard to sustain a segregationist policy back home,” Schubert wrote. “And a growing instability on the Korean peninsula and the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union also convinced the president and his advisers of the need for large standing army.”
Truman also was deeply affected by the injustices and tragedies awaiting black veterans after they returned from the battlefields. In South Carolina, according to Schubert, a sheriff received no punishment after he intentionally blinded Isaac Woodward, a former Army sergeant who has served in Germany.
“This really touched President Truman,” Schubert wrote.
Near Monroe, Ga., a white mob dragged two black veterans and their wives from their car and shot them to death. Authorities removed 60 bullets from the bodies. Again, Truman was outraged and vowed to act on behalf of black service personnel. Although he knew he would face resistance from the Dixiecrat wing of his party, he believed he could get specific results without much delay.
Although top white brass, including Army Gen. Omar Bradley, opposed desegregating the armed services – with Bradley declaring that the armed services had no business engaging in “social experiments” – Truman moved ahead.
When the United States left Korea in 1953, most units had desegregated. All had done so by 1965.
Today, the U.S. military is a model of racial integration. Tens of thousands of blacks have made the armed services their careers and have risen to high ranks, with Colin Powell becoming the nation’s first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the past is passe, that our civil rights heritage is “old school.” Our civil rights struggle, led in many cases by decent white people, such as Harry S. Truman, drew the blueprint for who we are as a nation today.
We should not forget.