Executive Order 9981 Issued; Pres. Truman Orders End to Segregation in U.S. Armed Forces

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Executive Order 9981 Issued; Pres. Truman Orders End to Segregation in U.S. Armed Forces

Front page of Chicago Defender for July 31, 1948
Note headline that Pres. Truman "wipes out segregation in armed forces"
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 26, 1948

For today's stroll through military history, I bring you a battle that took nearly 100 years from beginning to end. It highlights the struggle by African-Americans to attain equality of treatment and opportunity.


This tale rightfully begins on January 1, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, this document, while freeing slaves who were located in the states that were in rebellion (aka, the Confederacy), it spurred thousands of free African-Americans in the Northern U.S. to enlist in the Union Army. It was the policy of the Federal government to form regiments composed entirely of African-Americans, but they were commanded by white officers. By the end of the War Between the States, there were 175 regiments of these men, which comprised one-tenth of the Union Army, some 180,000 men. During the course of the War of the Rebellion, 25 African Americans received the Medal of Honor for bravery.

After 1865, the U.S. Army was greatly reduced in size from just over 1 million personnel to just 57,000 one year later. In 1877 – a mere 12 years after the War Between the States ended, the U.S. Army numbered only 24,140 soldiers. In the time period of the Indian Wars (approximately 1866-1890), there were 6 (later reduced to 4) regiments in the U.S. Army dubbed "Buffalo Soldiers." They were the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry regiments. In 1869, the 38th and 41st regiments were reconstituted as the 24th Infantry, and the 39th and 40th regiments were consolidated to become the 25h Infantry. All four regiments fought hard and well, earning the respect of every Indian tribe they encountered. A total of 18 Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Indian Wars.

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry (some wearing buffalo robes) at Ft. Keogh, MT c. 1890; Image courtesy of Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division
Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry (some wearing buffalo robes) at Ft. Keogh, MT c. 1890
Image courtesy of Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

After their participation in the Spanish-American War (1898), in which 6 African-Americans received this country's highest military award, the First and Second World wars initially saw no Medals of Honor awarded. [This was corrected many years later, when 2 African-Americans received Medals of Honor for their service in "The Great War" in 1991 and 2015. A further investigation into discrimination against African-Americans in the Second World War  resulted in seven Distinguished Service Crosses being upgraded to Medals of Honor – all but one posthumously – in 1997.]

Post-Second World War

As African American soldiers returned to the United States from fighting overseas in World War II, they hoped to return to a more equitable society. However, many soldiers experienced openly hostile reactions from white Southerners as they wore their uniforms in their hometowns.

Two such cases made national headlines. In February of 1946 near Aiken, SC, a bus driver kicked Sergeant Isaac Woodard off a bus for allegedly being disruptive, and a police officer beat him and gouged out his eyes, blinding him. Shortly afterward in Monroe, GA, a group of white men dragged two soldiers and their wives from a car and shot them. Later examination of the bodies revealed a total 60 bullets.

As a result of these two incidents, President Truman began to push for greater equality in American society. [Many federal bureaucrats and members of Congress believed, as Pres. Truman came from Missouri – traditionally lumped in with other "Southern" states – would hold the same beliefs about segregation. However…] In June of 1947, Truman spoke to the final conference session of the NAACP, saying in part:

As Americans, we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American's achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character. These rewards for his effort should be determined only by those truly relevant qualities.

After much soul-searching and consultation, President Truman issued to executive orders on July 26, 1948. Executive Order (EO) 9980 elimination racial discrimination in the federal bureaucracy. Its companion, EO 9981, stated in part, "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."

Many experts insist that Truman could and should have gone further than he did with civil rights. The Justice Department should have worked harder to prosecute potential civil rights cases. Others maintain that Truman put forth his civil rights agenda for political purposes, in order to gain African-American votes, or to improve our standing in developing nations and gain their support over the Soviet Union.

But in reading Truman's personal writings and public speeches, it is clear that Truman made his decision out of an innate sense of right and a desire to see that the promise of the Declaration of Independence – the idea that all men are created equal – be carried out.

Footnote #1: Segregation within the military services did not officially end until Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson announced on September 30, 1954 that the last all-black unit had been abolished.

Footnote #2: There was considerable resistance to the President's EO, but within a few years, African-Americans were serving in integrated units during the Korean War.

Footnote #3: Many years later, General Colin Powell would credit Truman with the change. "The military was the only institution in all of America – because of Harry Truman – where a young black kid, now twenty-one years old, could dream the dream he dared not think about at age eleven. It was the one place where the only thing that counted was courage, where the color of your guts and the color of your blood was more important than the color of your skin."

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