African Americans fought in World War II for what President Franklin Roosevelt called the "four essential human freedoms," but at home, African Americans faced segregation, racial violence and deprivation of voting rights.
When the United States and the rest of the world discovered the full extent of Nazi Germany's genocidal plan against Jews, white Americans became more willing to examine their own country's racism. Meanwhile, returning African-American veterans became determined to root out injustice in the United States. In this context, the desegregation of the military took place in 1948.
President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights
After the end of the war, President Harry Truman placed civil rights high on his political agenda. While many Americans were reeling from the revelations regarding the Nazis' Holocaust, Truman was already looking ahead to the near certain conflict with the Soviet Union. If the United States was going to convince the nations of the world to align themselves with Western democracies, in particular the United States, and reject socialism, then the United States needed to rid itself of racism and begin practicing in earnest the ideals of freedom and liberty for all.
In 1946, Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights, which reported back to him in 1947. The committee documented civil rights violations and racial violence and urged Truman to take steps to rid the country of the "disease" of racism. One of the points the report made was that African Americans who serve their country did so in a racist and discriminatory environment.
Executive Order 9981African-American activist and leader Philip Randolph told Truman that if he did not end segregation in the armed forces, African Americans would start refusing to serve in the armed forces. Desirous of African American political support and wanting to bolster U.S. reputation abroad, Truman decided to desegregate the military.
Truman did not think it likely that such legislation would make it through Congress. So instead, Truman used an executive order to end military segregation. Executive Order 9981, signed on July 26, 1948, forbade discriminating against military personnel because of race, color, religion, or national origin.
SignificanceThe desegregation of the armed forces was a major civil rights victory for African Americans. Though a number of whites in the military resisted and racism continued to exist within the armed forces, Executive Order 9981 was the first major blow to segregation, giving hope to African-American activists that change was possible.
"Desegregation of the Armed Forces." The Truman Library. Available at: http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/workbook/ralprs36b.htm
Gardner, Michael R., George M Elsey, Kweisi Mfume. Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks. Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2003.
Sitkoff, Harvard. "African Americans, American Jews, and the Holocaust. In The Achievement of American Liberalism: The New Deal and Its Legacies. Ed. William Henry Chafe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 181-203.