Former Chairman Discusses Truman’s 1948 Integration Order
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 28, 2008 The opportunities that all Americans in the military now enjoy are the result of people insisting things can be better, the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
In an interview with the Pentagon Channel, retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell discussed the ramifications of President Harry S. Truman signing the executive order to integrate the armed forces on July 26, 1948.
Powell said it’s important that today’s servicemembers understand that the opportunities they have now are “not some miracle that came down from heaven.”
“This is a result of generations of people who went before you who were denied that opportunity, but who served anyway because by serving, you demonstrated you were as good as anyone else, and therefore, you should not be denied,” the former chairman said.
Powell served as the highest-ranking member of the military from 1989 to 1993. He was the senior military advisor to President George H.W. Bush during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Powell also served as Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005. He said he was a 10-year old kid in the South Bronx when Truman signed Executive Order 9981. “I’m sure I had no acknowledgement that such an order had been signed,” he said.
But that changed when he entered ROTC at the City College of New York in 1954. It had taken six years after the order, but when Powell began college, the Army was fully integrated, he said.
“And by the time I entered the Army in 1958 – 10 years after the order was signed – the only thing they cared about was could I perform: Not whether I was black, white, poor, rich, West Pointer or non-West Pointer,” he added.
Timing is everything, the former chairman said.
“Had I come along earlier – during the days of Jim Crow, during the days of segregation and discrimination in the armed forces – I doubt I would have been able to go as far as I did,” he said. “But by the time I came, all of that was in the past, and the only thing they cared about was could you perform.”
The military, and indeed the country, can and should do more, Powell said.
The promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” often has not been honored, he noted. “We know those fabulous words out of the Declaration. We know what the Constitution says. But it wasn’t always the case. It was a dream; it was an aspiration,” he said.
The country lived through slavery and Jim Crowism, “but we are still carrying along part of that old legacy,” Powell said. “So we are not where we need to be. We need to keep working to open up avenues of opportunity in this country.”
While the military has been the example to society in general, no one in the armed forces should rest on their laurels, the general said, and servicemembers can serve as role models to Americans of all walks. Members of Junior ROTC, young sergeants, petty officers, officers and other leaders need to get out in the communities to demonstrate what diversity is all about, he said. Doing that will allow America to move forward “until we are at that place in our history, that place in our life, where we can say that’s all behind us,” Powell said.
Mentoring is an important part of the process, the former chairman said. “I was mentored when I came along as a young officer. We didn’t call it mentoring in those days; we called it getting chewed out by your boss,” he said with a smile.
Powell said all servicemembers have a responsibility to mentor their subordinates.
“All leaders have a responsibility to take care of the troops entrusted to their care,” he said. “And one of the most important ways of taking care of somebody is mentoring them and getting them ready to move up, helping them, pointing out their strengths, pointing out their weaknesses, giving them an example.”
Powell said the integration order is an important historical event.
“For our young servicemen and servicewomen today, it might seem like ancient history. But it’s real in my lifetime,” he said. “And it’s important for them to remember that 60 years ago, we lived in a country where people were measured solely on the color of their skin, where African-Americans who had gone to World War II and who had fought and served in their hundreds of thousands then came back to a nation that wouldn’t serve them.”
Up to that point, African-Americans had served in all U.S. wars without the recognition that their service demanded respect. “But after World War II, African-Americans came back and said, ‘No, this has to change,’” Powell said.
Truman’s executive order would not have happened had not African-Americans stood up and demanded that it change, Powell said. And Truman did the right thing by using an executive order to desegregate the military, he added, because had Congress voted on desegregation, it would have been defeated.
“But Truman was bold enough, brave enough and committed enough to make it an executive order that said, ‘This will stop,’” the former chairman said.