60th Anniversary of the Racial Integration of the Military and Federal Workforce (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Thank you for that introduction. And thank you all for being here this morning.
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 of the desegregation of the federal workforce and the U.S. military reminds us how far we have come toward living up to our founding ideals, and how far we still have to go.
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’s sons and daughters had just fought in Europe and the Pacific to preserve freedom and human dignity for the world’s people. Yet African-Americans who served with distinction in World War II still faced the bigotry of Jim Crow. Black GIs lived in separate, inferior quarters. In some Army camps, if the USO came around, black troops had to sit behind German or Italian prisoners of war to watch the show.
The treatment of patriots as second-class citizens was a sharp contradiction that gave impetus to change. There were public speeches. And there were tough negotiations – like A. Philip Randolph sitting down with FDR and his advisors and demanding opportunities for black workers in the shipyards and other sectors of wartime industrial production. There were President Truman’s executive orders, 9980 and 9981, two of the first federal measures against discrimination in America. But mostly, there was the quiet courage of black servicemen who were willing to defend their country even though their country wasn't willing to defend their rights.
What motivated them? Retired Army General Colin Powell, former chairman of the joint chiefs and former Secretary of State, recently spoke about this. Secretary Powell said that his predecessors were treated poorly by the military, but they served anyway “because by serving, you demonstrated you were as good as anybody else, and therefore, you should not be denied.”
The Truman executive orders, as we know, had to overcome stiff institutional resistance. 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 orders were 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, battlefield requirements triumphed [over] 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 – just three percent of them stewards. By 1954 the Korean War was over; the last of the segregated units were dissolved; and 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 -- and all too often died -- together with honor. They do so today, in a military that puts merit and integrity above all. African Americans are ascending to the highest ranks and leading troops in some of the most grueling and complex wars our nation has ever faced. Today’s leaders like:
• General “Kip” Ward, who leads Africom;
• Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, who commands U.S. ground operations in Iraq;
• Major General Walter Gaskin, who recently commanded the Second Marine Division in Anbar province;
• And many others.
My hope and expectation is that, in the years ahead, more African Americans must and will staff the armed forces at the highest levels. We must make sure that our military is able to continue to be a great engine of progress and equality – all the better to defend our people and the values that we hold dear.