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On 03 March 1770 a handful of courageous young Americans, all burning with passion, hope and desire for democracy and human freedom converged on a street corner in Boston, Massachusetts. The small and unarmed parade was halted by hostile British soldiers who fired their muskets. The first American to die that day which began America's first war a black sailor. His name, Crispus Attucks.
FOR THE NEXT 178 YEARS...
Because of their race Americans of African descent serving courageously, valiantly and with desire no less equal than Americans of other ancestral heritage were not permitted to share the same battlefield with white Americans. The reason for this, a large majority of white Americans refused to serve alongside black Americans.
WORLD WAR II PROMPTS A CHANGE...
On December 7th, 1941 America found itself again at war. Like Crispus Attucks, another American sailor, Dorrie Miller, a galley cook below the decks of his burning ship rushed topside. First seeking aid for the wounded machinegunners felled by attacking enemy planes, Miller took control of a deck-mounted machinegun from which he repelled divebomber attacks on his fellow crewman rescuing their injured comrades. For this act of exceptional bravery Miller received the Silver Star... the first issued during the official start of America's entry into World War II. Sadly, it would be another seven years before black Americans would achieve legal equality in America's armed forces.
PRESIDENT TRUMAN ORDERS AN END TO SEGREGATION
On July 26, 1948, World War I veteran and Commander-in-Chief Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order (9981) officially ending racial segregation in all branches of United States armed forces. However, although President Truman's order commanded an end to segregation he permitted local commanders to implement his order at such time they deemed appropriate. This "weasle-wording", as some critics charged, continued to permit some military commands, to continue racial segregation four more years. It would not be until well into the Korean War that the last segregated African-American unit would be abolished. It would not be until the Gulf War, over forty years later, that a majority of black soldiers, sailors, Marines and airpersonnel surveyed expressed racial segregation and assaults by whites reached a "not to noticeable" level.
OUTRAGES DURING THE VIETNAM WAR
Although many -- not all -- whites who served during the Vietnam War are quick to assert the line, "We were all (olive-drab) green over there (in Vietnam)... there was no racism," stories told by black servicepersons illustrate a far different picture. Oliver Stone, in his film, "Platoon", took the courageous step of being one of the first white Vietnam vets to publicly admit to incidents of racial prejudice in Vietnam. Many black vets have received apologies at The Wall and at Vietnam vet gatherings since the war from white vets who sometimes tearfully regret their prejudices as being "just the way things were over there."
THE HEALING PROCESS HAS BEGAN WITH THE GULF WAR
General Colin Powell's leadership during the Gulf War helped to finally put to rest officially sanctioned racial prejudice in the armed forces. Though remnants of racism still remain in the ranks commanders who share the biases of some supremacists can no longer excuse acts of discrimination or abuse that were permitted more than two hundred years of uniformed service.
VETERANS GROUPS REMAIN THE LAST HOLDOUTS
As vestigial remnants of racial prejudice gradually dissipated in the armed forces along with the retirements of men and women who served during segregated service, many of America's veterans groups still contain voiceful members of that era... which some black vets say discourage their membership. Black membership in veterans organizations does not even come close to the percentage of black's who served in their military eras. However, as younger white members of the post-Vietnam era begin to assume the leadership positions in vet organizations older black vets have expressed optimism that a welcome mat will be placed out by more and more vet groups who seek to honor all who served regardless of their color.
In the current edition of Stars and Stripes, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (Democrat, Illinois) speaks toward the 50th Anniversary of Executive Order 9981... President Harry S. Truman's directive eradicating racial segregation in all branches of the United States military.
"President Truman recognized the value of diversity. It lay not only in the singular talent and contributions of some, but in the collective vigor of the whole. Our great nation has been forged by the sacrifice of Americans of every stripe, by the values which define s as one people. The military services have led the country in providing opportunities for excellence, and the defense of our country has befitted from that leadership. Excellence and honor, valor and patriotism are values which bring us together as Americans, and shape our national character. Truman's decision made us a "more perfect nation" and continues to this day to be a shining example of leadership.
for Senator Moseley-Braun's complete editorial, please see The Stars and Stripes, Vol 121 No 2, 19 Jan - 01 Feb 1998, now at newsstands or by subscription. Senator Moseley-Braun is the first African-American woman to serve in the United States Senate.
The American War Library
Executive Order 9981 Go
Cannon Fodder: Growing Up For Vietnam
Book - Complete text online
The Last Black Combat Unit Of The US Army Go
Black Combat Units In The Korean War Action Go