copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
Three score ago, after a long history of service, superior, and yet segregated, Black soldiers were recognized as equal, or at least consideration for the possibility was put forth. In truth, then and perhaps now, manpower needs took precedence over racial prejudice in name only. The story begins on July 26, 1948, or perchance, years earlier. Historians speak of President Harry S. Truman's doctrine, Executive Order 9981. The directive states, "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." While the words are wondrous, the tale of what was and is, does not begin or end with this decree.
Segregation in the Armed Forces was perhaps a source of embarrassment to many Americans and the President of the "United" States. Before 1940, and America's entrance into World War II, African American soldiers served with honor and little acknowledgement. Troops whose complexion was dark were forbidden from flying for the U.S. military forces. Frustrated with the reality that, years after being freed from slavery, African-Americans, had little opportunity to "soar," "Civil Rights organizations and the Black press exerted pressure." The strength of community outreach and a media delivered message helped to bring about long overdue change. Ultimately, in 1941, an all African-American squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, was formed. They became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. After the Second World War, the honorable actions of the Tuskegee Airmen were recognized more than once amongst average Americans. Indeed, these prized professionals were revered.
Perchance, Harry Truman heard the words of praise for the Black military pilots and realized he could no longer ignore the issue of segregation amongst servicemen; nor would he wish to. For, possibly, to this President, it had become obvious; when a man is allowed to be truly powerful, as the Airmen were, they serve in more than name only. The President proposed as he placed his signature on the proclamation,
"Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense.. . .
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."
Had Harry Truman not been aware of the esteemed Airmen, he may have known of the presence of dark skinned soldiers in American history, Buffalo Soldiers. These troops may have influenced his thoughts. The all-Black brigades became better known after the second war meant to end all wars. From 1941 through 1945, in World War II, Black military men served proudly and prominently, under the direction of Commander-In-Chief Truman.
Some 500,000 Blacks were stationed overseas, amounting to 4% of the 11 million Americans who served on foreign shores. About 10% of blacks were in combat units. The all-black 92nd Infantry was in Italy, and had 616 killed in action and 2,187 wounded. The 93rd Division was stationed in the South Pacific, losing 17 KIA and 121 WIA. There was also the black 366th Infantry (Separates).
During the Battle of the Bulge, 2,500 blacks were formed into all black Infantry platoons and attached to larger units. The famed 761st Tank Battalion spent 183 continuous days in combat in the European Theater, earning a Presidential Unit Citation. The 333rd Field Artillery bravely supported ground operations in France.
Three all-black air units flew overseas: 332nd Fighter Group, 477th Bombardment Group and the 99th Fighter Squadron. Sixty-six Black pilots were killed in action. A total of 140,000 blacks served in the Army Air Forces. Nearly 150,000 Blacks served in the Navy. Of the 12,000 Black Marines, 9 were killed in action.
President Truman may have understood all that African-American soldiers had done to help achieve an American victory. Yet, he also understood, that no matter what the Black troops did in the service to their country, they would always be seen as unequal, that is unless action was taken to correct the fate of soldiers whose skin was a purplish-brown hue.
This was made more apparent when, on February 13, 1946, two years before President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 into law. On Valentine's Day eve, love was lost for an African-American World War II veteran, Isaac Woodard. The honorably discharged Sergeant, a decorated soldier, was attacked and blinded by policemen in Aiken, South Carolina. President Truman took notice. Actually, he had too. Although, initially the periodicals did not cover the story, word did spread. Soon the major news outlets printed reports and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publicized the occurrence. Manpower, precedence, and prejudice again are considerations in the life of a Black soldier.
(N)ews soon also emerged in popular culture. Via his radio show, broadcaster and movie celebrity Orson Welles soon began to crusade for the punishment of Shull (the officer who intentionally blinded Mister Woodard) and his accomplices. Welles, a follower of the civil rights movement, found the reaction of the South Carolina government to be intolerable and shameful.
The news would also have an impact on music as well. A month after the beating, calypso artist Lord Invader recorded an anti-racism song for his album Calypso at Midnight entitled "God Made Us All," with the last line in the song directly referencing the incident.
Perhaps, President Harry Truman was not moved by music or media personalities. Possibly, more prominent in his mind were the internal communications that circulated through the White House. Two years to the day, before Executive Order 9981 was signed a memorandum "Re: Stoppage of Negro Enlistments" marched through the halls at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The document, from the desk of Philleo Nash, Special Assistant to the President, was addressed to David K. Niles, Administrative Assistant to Harry Truman. The communication referenced "undesirable and uneconomical" Black soldiers.
As the discussion of what to do with Black troops raged on within the walls of the White House, a Caucasian crowd pulled two African-American veterans and their wives from their automobile near Monroe, Georgia. The Black citizens were shot to death; their bodies riddled with bullets. Upon investigation, it was discovered sixty (sixty) rounds were fired into the purplish brown flesh of these four innocent persons. Their only crime was the color of their skin. Whites in the community found the darker hue objectionable. Again, it mattered not that the men were soldiers, honorably discharged after years of service to the country that denied them equal rights, the "United" States of America. On this occasion, the need or want of a few white men took precedence over racial justice. This may have disturbed the man in the Oval Office, Harry Truman. The Commander took action.
Within days of the horrific occurrence, on July 30, 1946, Attorney General Tom Clark announced that the President had instructed the Justice Department to "proceed with all its resources to investigate [the Monroe, Georgia atrocity] and other crimes of oppression so as to ascertain if any Federal statute can be applied."
Months later, in a letter to the National Urban League, President Truman resolved; the government has "an obligation to see that the civil rights of every citizen are fully and equally protected." Yet, it became increasingly apparent the Administration had done nothing to ensure the rights of African-Americans, in, or out of the Armed Forces.
As months turn into years, and racism remained rampant on the streets and in the barracks, Presidential Advisor Clark Clifford urged President Truman to consider the importance of the African-American vote and Civil Rights issues in the 1948 Presidential campaign. Perhaps, that was the catalyst. Expedience advanced equality. Thus, Executive Order 9981 was signed into law. End of story, all is well, and sixty years later Americans celebrate the anniversary of equal Rights for Black soldiers, or so it would seem.
Yet, on the same day the order was executed, Army staff officers spoke anonymously to the press. Each official explained the Executive Order 9981 did not specifically forbid segregation in the Army. Then Army Chief of Staff General Omar N. Bradley stated desegregation would come to the Army "only when it becomes a fact in the rest of American society."
While Americans may wish to believe that the ugly face of bigotry is gone for good, indeed, even in the twenty-first century, intolerance surfaces in subtle ways. Once again, manpower needs took precedence over racial prejudice in name only. Filmmaker Clint Eastwood had a need for a cast of characters. He hoped to document the mêlée at Iwo Jima, 1945. Yet, he did not tell the story a Black soldier who served in the battle might have.
On February 19 1945, Thomas McPhatter found himself on a landing craft heading toward the beach on Iwo Jima.
"There were bodies bobbing up all around, all these dead men," said the former US marine, now 83 and living in San Diego. "Then we were crawling on our bellies and moving up the beach. I jumped in a foxhole and there was a young white marine holding his family pictures. He had been hit by shrapnel, he was bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth. It frightened me. The only thing I could do was lie there and repeat the Lord's prayer, over and over and over."
Sadly, Sgt McPhatter's experience is not mirrored in Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's big-budget, Oscar-tipped film of the battle for the Japanese island that opened on Friday in the US. While the film's battle, scenes show scores of young soldiers in combat, none of them are African-American. Yet almost 900 African-American troops took part in the battle of Iwo Jima, including Sgt McPhatter.
Apologies are offered. Yet, not to Sergeant Thomas McPhatter, or by the director, Clint Eastwood. The filmmaker said he did not include Blacks in the script "because there were no Afro-American soldiers involved." Notwithstanding, the facts, many servicemen of color fought for this country long before they were acknowledged or recognized by the State, society, or a screenwriter such as Clint Eastwood. Mostly, the military men of color fought on two fronts. First, Black servicemen battled with foreign foes. Then they clashed with those at home who only saw their skin color. Neighbors acted as local combatants, not allied forces. Civilians, protected by active duty Black soldiers, accused those whose complexions were charcoal of crimes they had not committed. The evidence offered was but a reflection of reality; racial prejudice is preeminent. Please consider a tale too true.
Army apologizes to soldiers convicted after 1944 Fort Lawton riot
By Keith Ervin
For decades, Willie Prevost kept his secret.
Like most of his World War II Army buddies, he never told his family about his conviction for rioting during a night of violence that left a number of men injured and one dead at Seattle's Fort Lawton in 1944.
But on Saturday, his family was there as the U.S. Army apologized in a ceremony to clear the names of Prevost and 27 other African-American soldiers who were convicted in a now-discredited court-martial.
Sixty-three years after they were sentenced to hard labor, and nearly all dishonorably discharged, "The Fort Lawton 28" were given military honors, with an Army band and color guard, gospel choir and speeches by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and Assistant Secretary of the Army Ronald James.
Only two of the veterans lived to see the day. . .
In total, the families of five veterans were present.
Saturday's ceremony took place on a Fort Lawton parade ground — now part of Seattle's Discovery Park — 60 years to the day after President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces.
Again, actions taken six decades earlier prove profound. The past permeates the present. As Americans celebrate six decades, since the end of segregation in the Armed Forces, we must accept that in actuality, prejudice still permeates and is prominent. While it might be argued; there has been some progress. Decades later, apologies are offered to a few, or two. There is still much to be done to right persistent wrongs. Perhaps we may wish to ponder the present,
Blacks still rare in top U.S. military ranks
While blacks make up about 17% of the total force, they are just 9% of all officers, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Associated Press.
The rarity of blacks in the top ranks is apparent in one startling statistic: Only one of the 38 four-star generals or admirals serving as of May was black. And just 10 black men have ever gained four-star rank - five in the Army, four in the Air Force and one in the Navy, according to the Pentagon.
All is not well on the Western front. America and Americans do not honor the contributions of all hues. Accolades of "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." aside, pinkish persons have yet to embrace the notion; we are one, the human race.
References Racial Discrimination and Executive Order 9981 . .