Secretary of Defense Robert Gates today celebrated the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of the armed forces and the federal civil service in a ceremony at the Pentagon.
Executive Order 9980, which President Truman signed on July 26, 1948, created a Fair Employment Board to eliminate racial discrimination in federal employment. Executive Order 9981, signed the same day, began the process of eliminating segregated units and occupational specialties from the post-World War II military.
Progress in carrying out the presidential directive, however, was initially slow. “As is often the case, harsh necessity became the midwife of progress” said Gates. “With the sudden outbreak of war in Korea, battlefield requirements triumphed over Jim Crow,” and brought the inefficient race-based personnel system to an end.
The Department of Defense has made remarkable strides in integration since then, with blacks today making up 13 percent of the enlisted force, about parallel to black representation in the civilian population in the recruitable age group. Blacks make up about 9 percent of all officers, slightly more than black representation among college graduates.
“No aspect of black Americans’ quest for justice and equality under the law has been nobler than what has been called, ‘the fight for the right to fight’” Gates stated. “Our commemoration of the desegregation of the federal workforce, and the U.S. military, reminds us of how far we’ve come toward living up to our founding ideals, and how far we still have to go.”
Accompanying Gates at today’s ceremony were Truman historian Michael Gardner, author of “Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks,” and Ken Hechler, a White House assistant and speechwriter for President Truman.
Gardner highlighted how Truman’s decision to integrate the armed forces was highly controversial, costing him considerable support in the South and nearly losing him the presidential election which occurred less than four months later. Polls at the time showed that 82 percent of Americans opposed Truman’s civil rights program, yet he persisted: “I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause” the President wrote to a friend.
Hechler spoke from his personal experience of President Truman’s convictions. “He always used to mention eight words from Thomas Jefferson, ‘Equal rights for all; special privileges for none,’” Hechler recounted. “And then he went on to say ‘Polls are just a snapshot of the moment; it takes courage, it takes honesty, it takes forthrightness for people in positions of leadership’ - and that’s Harry Truman’s moral compass, and his moral compass showed up in those two fantastic executive orders.”