[Repost; originally posted 7/26/2013; revised 7/26/2021]
When Lloyd Austin III, a retired general, was confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary in January 2021, he became the the first Black Pentagon chief.
This historic landmark is a reminder that on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued two Executive Orders that ended official discrimination in the United States military and the federal workforce.
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.
Coming in an election year, it was a daring move by Truman, who still needed the support of southern segregationists. It was also a controversial decision that led to the forced retirement of the Secretary of the Army when he refused to desegregate the Army.
President Truman, the first President to speak to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had based part of his platform on civil rights. Successfully elected but stymied by the 80th Congress, President Truman—armed with documentation from his Committee on Civil Rights—called for a special session for Congress. They were to convene on July 26, 1948.
On that hot, summer day in July, Truman signed his name to two documents: Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, integrating the Armed Forces and the Federal workforce.
Truman’s decision reflected the deep racist discrimination that plagued the country, including the celebrated G.I. Bill, passed to help veterans of World War II with education, housing, and job training. The program, while profoundly significant in American history, was largely closed to Black veterans.
Civil rights groups, frustrated by the lack of progress, continued to press Truman on legislation for racial equality. Knowing that civil rights legislation would stall in Congress, and with the reputation of the United States as a great democratic nation being questioned as racism continued to flourish during a nascent Cold War, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed two Executive Orders, 9980 and 9981, desegregating the federal work force and armed services — practices that would take years to be fully carried out.
As historical documents go, ““Executive Order 9980” and “Executive Order 9981” don’t have quite the same ring as “Emancipation Proclamation” or “New Deal.” But when President Harry S. Truman issued these Executive Orders, he helped transform the country. The first desegregated the federal workforce, segregated by President Woodrow Wilson.
The second order began the gradual official process of desegregating America’s armed forces, which was a groundbreaking step for the American civil rights movement.
It is worth noting that many of the arguments made at the time against integration of the armed services — unit cohesion, morale of the troops, discipline in the ranks– were also made about the question of homosexuals serving in the military, a policy effectively ended when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011.
In a Defense Department history of the integration of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General James Collins Jr. wrote in 1980:
The integration of the armed forces was a momentous event in our military and national history…. The experiences in World War II and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement compelled all the services –Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps — to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. While there were differences in the ways that the services moved toward integration, all were subject to the same demands, fears, and prejudices and had the same need to use their resources in a more rational and economical way. All of them reached the same conclusion: traditional attitudes toward minorities must give way to democratic concepts of civil rights.
Here is the text of the Executive Order 9981 (Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum; dated July 26, 1948)