by Gerald Boerner
Following his election to a second term as president in 1948, Harry S. Truman entered a period of major change. Not only was he in office during the Korean Conflict, but he took the brave, bold step to remove color barriers in our military services. And this was at a time long before overt moves for civil rights causes in this country.
After the major examples of discrimination in the way people of color were deployed during the second World War, President Truman issued a proclamation that removed color barriers within the services. That did not result in true equality in the deployments, of course, but it set this nation on the course to bring about changes in the society outside of the military.
Yes, World War II did see the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen. Yes, there were regiments within the military that performed with honor even though they were not white. But people of color, even with this proclamation, were not given equal opportunities. We still struggle with these issues in both the military and in society in general.
Let us move ahead to this true equality of all peoples. Our nation will be stronger for it. GLB
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“What is our greatest enemy? Segregation.”
— Major Owens
“When you live under the power of terror and segregation, you can’t ever start a work of art.”
— Jeanne Moreau
“The legal battle against segregation is won, but the community battle goes on.”
— Dorothy Day
“We didn’t have any segregation at the Cotton Club. No. The Cotton Club was wide open, it was free.”
— Cab Calloway
“We do not show the Negro how to overcome segregation, but we teach him how to accept it as final and just.”
— Carter G. Woodson
“The March on Washington affirmed our values as a people: equality and opportunity for all. Forty-one years ago, during a time of segregation, these were an ideal.”
— Leonard Boswell
“While housing discrimination and segregation in 2005 still affect millions of people, that’s not the way it has to be. Some things can change and should.”
— Bruce Hornsby
“When you grow up in a totally segregated society, where everybody around you believes that segregation is proper, you have a hard time. You can’t believe how much it’s a part of your thinking.”
— Shelby Foote
President Truman: Ending the Segregated Military
Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972) was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953). As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third vice-president and the 34th Vice President of the United States, he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his historic fourth term.
During World War I, Truman served as an artillery officer, making him the only president to have seen combat in World War I (his successor Eisenhower spent the war training tank crews in Pennsylvania). After the war he became part of the political machine of Tom Pendergast and was elected a county commissioner in Missouri and eventually a Democratic United States senator. After he gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, Truman replaced vice president Henry A. Wallace as Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944.
Truman faced challenge after challenge in domestic affairs. The disorderly postwar reconversion of the economy of the United States was marked by severe shortages, numerous strikes, and the passage of the Taft–Hartley Act over his veto. He confounded all predictions to win re-election in 1948, helped by his famous Whistle Stop Tour of rural America. After his re-election he was able to pass only one of the proposals in his Fair Deal program. He used executive orders to begin desegregation of the military and create loyalty checks that dismissed thousands of communist supporters from office, even though he strongly opposed mandatory loyalty oaths for governmental employees, a stance that led to charges that his administration was soft on communism.
Truman’s presidency was also eventful in foreign affairs, with the end of World War II and his decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, the founding of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, the beginning of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Chinese Civil War, and the Korean War. Corruption in Truman’s administration, which was linked to certain members in the cabinet and senior White House staff, was a central issue in the 1952 presidential campaign and helped cause Adlai Stevenson, Truman’s successor for the Democratic nomination for president, to lose to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election.
Truman, whose demeanor was very different from that of the patrician Roosevelt, was a folksy, unassuming president. He popularized such phrases as "The buck stops here" and "If you can’t stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen." He overcame the low expectations of many political observers, who compared him unfavorably with his highly regarded predecessor. At different times in his presidency, Truman earned both the lowest public approval ratings that had ever been recorded, and the highest to be recorded until 1991. Despite negative public opinion during his term in office, popular and scholarly assessments of his presidency became more positive after his retirement from politics and the publication of his memoirs. Truman’s legendary upset victory in 1948 over Thomas E. Dewey is routinely invoked by underdog presidential candidates.
Desegregating the Military
A 1947 report by the Truman administration titled To Secure These Rights presented a detailed ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms. In February 1948, the president submitted a civil rights agenda to Congress that proposed creating several federal offices devoted to issues such as voting rights and fair employment practices. This provoked a storm of criticism from Southern Democrats in the run up to the national nominating convention, but Truman refused to compromise, saying: "My forebears were Confederates. . . . But my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." In retirement however, Truman was less progressive on the issue. He described the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches as silly, stating that the marches would not "accomplish a darned thing."
Instead of addressing civil rights on a case by case need, Truman wanted to address civil rights on a national level. Truman made three executive orders that eventually became a structure for future civil rights legislation. The first executive order, Executive Order 9981 in 1948, created the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity to make report on racial policies in the armed services. The Executive Order did not specifically address or even mention racial segregation, as Truman "wanted to give the least offense to voters who supported segregation." However, Truman later publicly confirmed that the executive order’s intent was to eliminate segregation. This was a milestone on a long road to desegregation of the Armed Forces. After several years of planning, recommendations and revisions between Truman, the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity and the various branches of the military, Army units became racially integrated. This process was also helped by the pressure of manpower shortages during the Korean War, as replacements to previously segregated units could now be of any race.
The second, also in 1948, made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race. The third executive order, in 1951, established Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC). This committee ensured that defense contractors to the armed forces could not discriminate against a person on account of race.
The President’s Committee on Civil Rights
The President’s Committee on Civil Rights was established by U.S. President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9808 on December 5, 1946. The committee was instructed to investigate the status of civil rights in the United States and propose measures to strengthen and protect the civil rights of American citizens. After the committee submitted a report of its findings to President Truman, it disbanded December 1947.
The committee was charged with: (1) examining the condition of civil rights in the United States, (2) producing a written report of their findings, and (3) submitting recommendations on improving civil rights in the United States. In December 1947, the committee produced a 178 page report entitled To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. In the report, it proposed to improve the existing civil rights laws; to establish a permanent Civil Rights Commission, Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice; to develop federal protection from lynching; to create a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC); to abolish poll taxes; and urged other measures.
On July 26, 1948, President Truman advanced the recommendations of the report by signing executive orders 9980 and 9981. Executive Order 9980 ordered the desegregation of the federal work force and Executive Order 9981 ordered the desegregation of the armed services. He also sent a special message to Congress on February 2, 1948 to implement the recommendations of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.
Impact on Civil Rights
The president’s Committee on Civil Rights was proactive in addressing the burgeoning issue of racism in post-war America. Protection from lynching and desegregation in the work force was a triumph of conscience for Truman; as he recalled in his farewell address:
There has been a tremendous awakening of the American conscience on the great issues of civil rights–equal economic opportunities, equal rights of citizenship, and equal educational opportunities for all our people, whatever their race or religion or status of birth.
However morally vindicating, the committee’s policies also addressed how the United States were to be received as a world power. As stated by the committee:
Our position in the postwar world is so vital to the future that our smallest actions have far-reaching effects. We have come to know that our own security in a highly interdependent world is inextricably tied to the security and well-being of all people and all countries. Our foreign policy is designed to make the United States an enormous, positive influence for peace and progress throughout the world. We have tried to let nothing, not even extreme political differences between ourselves and foreign nations, stand in the way of this goal. But our domestic civil rights shortcomings are a serious obstacle.
These small actions culminated into the signing of the two executive orders mentioned above by Truman in 1948, an election year. With the latter, in light of the growing possibility of war, addressing the state of black morale the armed forces. The far reaching effects that the committee had hoped for had little impact on the civil rights of black Americans in the late 1940s. The president failed to use the power given to him by the 14th and 15th amendments to execute laws strong enough to combat discrimination.It was not until the landmark "Brown vs. Board of Education" decision that the separate but equal doctrine would be overturned and that segregation be officially outlawed by the U.S. government.
President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces was a risky one as it came one hundred days before the 1948 presidential elections. This controversial decision might have cost him the presidential elections of 1948 but despite the risks he still went through with it and became the 33rd president of the United States of America. It was on July 26, 1948 that Truman abolished the segregation laws. He was shocked by the way veteran African Americans soldiers were treated after World War II. Executive orders 9980 and 9981 were introduced to desegregate the workforce and the army.
President Truman said the following before issuing executive order 9980 and 9981 ‘’Today, Freedom From Fear, and the democratic institutions which sustain it, are again under attack. In some places, from time to time, the local enforcement of law and order has broken down, and individuals—sometimes ex-servicemen, even women have been killed, maimed, or intimated. The preservation of civil liberties is a duty of every Government state, Federal and local. Wherever the law enforcement measures and the authority of federal, state, and local governments are inadequate to discharge this primary function of government, these measures and this authority should be strengthened and improved. The constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these constitutional rights’’.
Harry Truman briefly served as an artillery man in World War I. Truman’s brief experience as a soldier made him realize the horrors of war and that made him gain a new found respect for soldiers. He was appalled when he heard of stories of African American World War II veterans were being mistreated shortly after coming back home, especially in the southern states. A particular case caught his attention. A black Sergeant by the name of Isaac Woodard was physically abused and lost both his eyes in the process. His aggressor, Sheriff Shull openly admitted that he had used physical force on Woodard . However, despite all the evidence against Shull, he was acquitted of all charges in front of an all white jury.
Other Events on this Day:
Benjamin Franklin becomes the first postmaster general.
New York becomes the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution.
The first large-scale sugar plantation in Hawaii is started at Koloa, Kauai.
The Federal Bureau of Investiigation (FBI) is founded.
President Truman signs legislation creating the Department of Defense, National Security Council, and Central Intelligence Agency.
President Truman signs an executive order ending racial segregation in the U.S. military.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Harry S. Truman…
Wikipedia: President’s Committee on Civil Rights…
Brainy Quote: Segregation Quotes…