On the eve of World War Two, Charles Hamilton Houston, the Howard Law professor who planned the successful legal campaign to outlaw segregation in schools, called for racial equality within the military. (Lanning 162) He was unaware that the military already had a plan ready. The military proposed to increase the number of black soldiers to equal the percentage of blacks in the population. Furthermore, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. a brigadier general. Roosevelt made William Hastie assistant secretary in the War Department and Major Campbell Johnson a special advisor to the Selective Service System.(Lanning 165) But Roosevelt did not dismantle segregation within the military. The American Red Cross declared in 1941 that it would no longer accept blood donated by blacks because “white men in the service would refuse blood plasma if they knew it came from Negro veins.” Charles Drew, the black American who developed the procedure for extracting blood plasma, resigned from the Red Cross in protest. (Lanning 169)
Like other Americans, blacks fought bravely during World War Two. But unlike other Americans, blacks were not given the opportunity to participate in combat until near the end of the war, when President Roosevelt needed the black vote in the 1944 election. (Lanning 174) General Dwight Eisenhower demanded integrated troops when things were going badly, but discrimination remained strong in promotions and recognition. (Lanning 182) In fact, the seven black Medal of Honor recipients received their medals from President Clinton in 1997; six of these awards were posthumous. (Lanning 187)
The Army was not the only branch of the service with a poor record in race relations. The Air Force also discriminated- despite the existence of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Navy did recognize messman Dorie Miller, who shot down two Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor after rescuing his commanding officer. (Lanning 198) He was given the Navy Cross (the second highest valor award) and promoted to mess attendant first class. Miller died in 1943 after a Japanese torpedo destroyed his ship. (Lanning 199) The Navy did commission thirteen black officers in 1944, but their training was marked by racial harassment. (Astor 223)
On July 26, 1948, three years after the end of World War II, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ended racial segregation in the military. The platform of Thomas Dewey, Truman’s Republican opponent for President that fall, had called for an end to racial segregation in the military just before the order was issued. (Lanning 221)
Questions for discussion:
In what ways did World War Two result in a movement toward racial equality within the military?
What still needed to be accomplished within the military before racial equality would be achieved?