WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 24, 2008) -- On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. It was accompanied by Executive Order 9980, which created a Fair Employment Board to eliminate racial discrimination in federal employment.
Segregation in the military services did not officially end until the Secretary of Defense announced on Sept. 30, 1954 that the last all-black unit had been abolished. However, the president's directive put the armed forces at the forefront of the growing movement to win an equal social role and equal treatment for the nation's African-American citizens.
The Army began integrating units during the Korean War. Eighth Army commanders in Korea began filling losses in their white units with individuals from a surplus of black replacements arriving in Japan in late 1950. By early 1951, 9.4 percent of all African-Americans arriving in theater were serving in some 41 newly and unofficially integrated units, according to retired Army historian Morris J. MacGregor Jr. in his book, Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965 .
Another 9.3 percent of black Soldiers in Korea were in integrated, but predominantly black units, according to MacGregor, who said the other 81 percent continued to serve in segregated units.
This limited conversion to integrated units during the Korean War became permanent because "it worked.... The performance of integrated troops was praiseworthy with no reports of racial friction," said MacGregor, who served for years with the U.S. Army Center of Military Hisotory.
In December of 1952, Army Chief of Staff Gen. J. Lawton Collins ordered worldwide integration of Army units. All of the earlier fears cited to support the continuation of a segregated Army proved to be groundless, according to MacGregor. There was no increase in racial incidents, no breakdown of discipline, no uprising against integration by white Soldiers or surrounding white communities, no backlash from segregationists in Congress, or major public denouncements.
The Army and the nation were taking the first steps toward racial equality and harmony that would be at the core of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.
"Sixty years ago, President Truman set a non-negotiable standard for our nation's military, '...there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons,'" said Secretary of the Army Pete Geren. "On the 60th anniversary of that courageous act, we celebrate our Army's commitment to fulfilling President Truman's order and Dr. King's dream, an Army where men and women are judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin - Where the only colors that matter are red, white and blue."
The integration of the armed forces did more than just provide opportunity for African-American Soldiers, it opened the door of opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds.
"I think that we're leaders in many areas, but certainly we're leaders in equal opportunity," said retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton in a PBS interview. Becton was a Soldier who lived through the integration from World War II through the Korean and Vietnam War, and the Army's first African-American three-star general to command VII Corps in Europe. "We're leaders in giving all minorities an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. A point that we oftentimes are prone to forget, the order of 9981 did not just help the blacks."
Executive Order 9981 not only opened the door of opportunity for people from all walks if life, it showed the strength that there is in diversity, Becton said.
"That order of 9981 helped the entire Army, because it enhanced combat effectiveness," Becton said. "We don't have separate this, separate that, but when you are training together, you're going to be a better Army. We've proven that time and time again."
As part of a continuing observance of Executive Order 9981, the U.S. Army will be highlighting the historic importance of its 60th Anniversary through the eyes of Soldiers serving today in a diverse force, Army leaders said.
"We are not the greatest Army in the world because we are white or black, but because we reflect the faces of our society," said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston. "You learn early on that people can either be successful or not based on their abilities, willingness to make personal sacrifices and their commitment to the team."