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Segregation in the Armed Forces
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Jim Crow Segregation
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Segregation in the Armed Forces
Cover of the “Survey and Recommendations Concerning the Integration of the Negro Soldier into the Army”, dated September 22, 1941, by Robert P. Patterson, Under Secretary of War to Secretary of War.

During the First World War and before that, the US military was segregated by race. Black units were often poorly trained and equipped. This racial policy continued into the Second World War. African American leaders at the time pointed to the contradiction of a country fighting Nazi racism while having a segregated military itself. Also, African-American military stationed in Europe encountered the racially integrated British armed forces. It was not uncommon for African-American military to be turned away from (mostly white) officer’s clubs by American MP’s, while their Black British peers could simply walk in without any problem.

Second class citizens

The segregation of the United States armed forces reflected widespread racial segregation practices in the US in general, especially towards African-Americans and especially in the South. Many African Americans at this time led a life of second class citizens. They had to attend separate and inferior schools, were banned from many white-only establishments and in many places African-Americans were prevented from voting. Lynching was commonplace throughout the South, and racist politicians and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African-Americans who attempted to demand more rights. As such, the military’s segregation policies were simply an extension of a racist reality in US society at that time.

Jim Crow segregation

President Roosevelt initially did nothing to end the policy of racial segregation in the armed forces. He also did not publicly support civil rights for African-Americans during the first years of his administration. He was careful not to offend conservative Southern Democrats whose support he needed. These Southern Democrats, by and large, supported segregation in their states, a system known as "Jim Crow segregation." President Roosevelt was silent on the issue until the late 1930s, when his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, began to speak in support of African-Americans.

Desegregation

In March 1943, after much discussion and pressure from Black leaders, the War Department ordered the desegregation of recreational facilities at military facilities. In mid-1944, the War Department ordered all buses to be operated in a non-discriminatory fashion.

The experiences in the Second World War, and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement, forced all the armed services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps—to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. President Harry Truman signed an executive order on July 26, 1948 that led to the integration of the United States armed forces.

The order included the following text:
“It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."
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Image courtesy of the Truman Library.
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This day in history
Today: 16 August 2017
Then: 17 August 1943

Allies take Sicily

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