60th Anniversary of the Integration of the U.S. Armed Forces (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, July 23, 2008
It is an honor for me to participate in this event, and I thank you, Madame Speaker, for the invitation.
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.” Our commemoration today of the racial integration of the armed forces makes us reflect on how far we have come toward living up to our founding ideals, and yet how much remains to be done.
I have the privilege of leading an institution that began breaking down the barriers of race at the dawn of the modern civil rights revolution. Sixty years ago, America had just finished waging a mighty and bloody struggle for freedom and human decency abroad. But African Americans who had worn their country’s uniform in that conflict returned to face segregation and harassment at home.
President Truman’s executive order 9981 was an important statement and an important first step. It had to overcome stiff institutional resistance, as deeply entrenched attitudes were hard to change. The Army, for example, maintained its 10 percent quota on African American recruits, and continued to relegate black soldiers to menial tasks. For several years after the order was promulgated in 1948, segregated units remained the norm and integrated units the exception.
As is often the case, harsh necessity became the midwife of progress. With the sudden outbreak of war in Korea, the urgent demands of the battlefield trumped the old habits of Jim Crow. Before the start of the Korean War, 50 percent of African Americans in the Marine Corps – some 750 men – were in the Corps as stewards. At its conclusion, there were 17,000 black Marines – three percent of them stewards. By 1954 the Korean War was over; the last of the segregated units were dissolved; and the momentum for equality and civil rights was carrying over into American society as a whole.
Despite many difficulties and periods of tension, ensuing decades proved the fears of the early naysayers to be unfounded, as black and white Americans trained, served, and fought together with honor and distinction. And they do so today, in a military that puts merit and integrity above all.
In recent times, African Americans have participated in the defense of the nation well beyond their percentage of the population. My hope and expectation is that, in the years ahead, more African Americans will staff the armed forces at the highest levels. We must make sure the American military is able to continue to be a great engine of progress and equality – all the better to defend our people and our values against adversaries around the globe.