Executive Order 9981
July 26, 1948

Bruce Bird

I took a fellow senior to the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of the American Armed Forces by President Harry S.  (Executive Order 9981) Truman on July 26 1948.  Before this time, all the American Military Units were segregated, and the Army had only five Black officers in 1940 and there were only 4 or 5 thousand Black men in the Army with the same number in the Navy.  There were no Black Navy officers, and the Marines had forbidden the enlistment of Negroes, Mulattos or Indians since 1789.

Black troops had been fighting bravely for the United States, since before the country was established.  Black troops were mostly commanded by White officers until World War Two.  While few Black units were permitted in the combat role, those who were performed well.

Segregation was enforced on the 1.1 million Black troops in WW II.  As a result, there was a Black Army and a White Army, a Black Navy and a White Navy, a Black Air Force and a White Air Force, and a Black Marine Corps and a White Marine Corps.  The Coast Guard was more integrated, but only with enlisted men.  This was a very inefficient way to run the military.

After the war, some of the more forward thinkers in the military and politics wanted to integrate the military.  There was considerable resistance to integration in both the civilian and military circles.  President Truman had the courage to take the political risks when he integrated the military just before the presidential election, which he was not expected to win.  He took the risk because he believed in integration and he won the election.

The military was reluctant to desegregate and was slow in implementing President Truman’s orders.  The last segregated units were not disbanded until 1954, six years later.  By 1990 General Colin Powel who spoke at this event, was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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