Desegregation of the U.S. Army became policy when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on 26 July 1948 stating, "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." The order also established an advisory committee to examine the rules, practices, and procedures of the armed services and recommend ways to make desegregation a reality.
During World War II, the Army had become the nation's largest minority employer, yet existing policy supported segregated units, training, and facilities. From within the Army, most calls for change set efficiency and improved performance, not desegregation, as goals. But civil rights activists argued that segregation actually caused many problems that could only be corrected by ending the policy.
Black soldiers served only in segregated units until
President Truman signed Executive Order 9981.
In the fall of 1945, the Gillem Board, composed of three general officers, examined racial problems in the Army. Maj. Gen. Lewis A. Pick, later Lieutenant General and Chief of Engineers, was selected for the board because of his wartime success commanding both black and white troops on the Ledo Road in the China-Burma-India Theater.
Lt. Gen. Lewis Pick
In its final report, published the following April, the board adopted integration as a long-term goal and recommended that qualified black soldiers be included in special and overhead units and that black officers be assigned the same tasks as white officers. The board's recommendation that the accepted ratio of black-to-white troops be the same as the ratio in the civilian sector (Army policy during the war), unfortunately was widely seen as a restrictive quota rather than a minimum baseline.
Kenneth C. Royall, Secretary of the Army, interpreted the board's recommendations as taking a separate but equal approach to military units, an approach he believed was not discriminatory. And like many soldiers and civilians, Royall believed that the Army should not engage in social experimentation but follow the lead of the nation.
Whatever the interpretation of the Gillem Report, segregation in the Army was not ended. Further action was required to bring about substantive change.
Several factors were coming together to force a new racial policy. Chief among these were the significant number of blacks in the armed forces, the growing strength of the civil rights movement, the politics of a presidential campaign, and the unlikelihood that Congress would take any action. In early 1946, the number of blacks in the Army had exceeded the wartime high of 9.68 percent of those enlisted. That figure was expected to reach 15 percent or more the following year. With such numbers, many argued, maintaining separate forces would make less and less economic sense.
In the spring of 1948, President Truman sought congressional approval of a new draft law and universal military training. After the draft law was enacted in June, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a powerful civil rights leader, argued that the proposed legislation was severely handicapped because it did not outlaw segregation. If discrimination was not addressed, Randolph threatened a march on Washington, D.C., and resistance to the draft.
Meanwhile, at the Democratic National Convention a strong civil rights plank called for an end to discrimination in the armed forces. The pressure was on and Truman responded with Executive Order 9981.
Randolph immediately called off the march on Washington and resistance to the draft, but because the order did not include the word "integration," he obtained assurances from President Truman that he did indeed intend to end segregation.
Through a series of hearings and recommendations, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services (known as the Fahy Committee after its chairman, Charles Fahy) eventually got the Army to agree to abolish the quota, open all unit specialties and training to qualified black soldiers, and assign them to any unit based on individual ability or Army need. Many leaders continued to support separate but equal units.
Integration, which civil rights activists and special committees were slowly accomplishing despite persistent resistance, quickly became reality after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. In just five months, the Army's size doubled. Without a quota, black strength grew disproportionately while casualties severely reduced white units. In the heat of battle, the Eighth Army began assigning individual black soldiers to previously all white units, even before receiving guidance from Washington.
By mid-1951, more than 18 percent of African-Americans in the Army were serving in integrated or partially-integrated units. The change to integrated units was permanent, if limited. And most importantly, the integrated units were successful. Segregation officially ended in 1954 with the disbandment of the last all-black unit.
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