How Executive Order 9981 Desegregated the U.S. Military

This groundbreaking legislation paved the way for the civil rights movement

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The enactment of Executive Order 9981 not only desegregated the U.S. military but paved the way for the civil rights movement as well. Before the order went into effect, African-Americans had a long history of military service. They fought in World War II for what President Franklin Roosevelt called the "four essential human freedoms," even though they faced segregation, racial violence and lack of voting rights at home.

When the United States and the rest of the world discovered the full extent of Nazi Germany's genocidal plan against Jews, white Americans became more willing to examine their own country's racism. Meanwhile, returning African-American veterans became determined to root out injustice in the United States. In this context, the desegregation of the military took place in 1948.

President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights

After World War II's end, President Harry Truman placed civil rights high on his political agenda. While details of the Nazis' Holocaust shocked many Americans, Truman was already looking ahead to the near certain conflict with the Soviet Union. To convince foreign nations to align themselves with Western democracies and reject socialism, the United States needed to rid itself of racism and begin practicing in earnest the ideals of freedom and liberty for all.

In 1946, Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights, which reported back to him in 1947.

The committee documented civil rights violations and racial violence and urged Truman to take steps to rid the country of the "disease" of racism. One of the points the report made was that African-Americans who serve their country did so in a racist and discriminatory environment.

Executive Order 9981

Black activist and leader A. Philip Randolph told Truman that if he did not end segregation in the armed forces, African-Americans would start refusing to serve in the armed forces.

Seeking African-American political support and wanting to bolster U.S. reputation abroad, Truman decided to desegregate the military.

Truman did not think it likely that such legislation would make it through Congress, so he used an executive order to end military segregation. Executive Order 9981, signed on July 26, 1948, prohibited discrimination against military personnel because of race, color, religion or national origin.

Significance

The desegregation of the armed forces was a major civil rights victory for African-Americans. Though a number of whites in the military resisted the order, and racism continued in the armed forces, Executive Order 9981 was the first major blow to segregation, giving hope to African-American activists that change was possible.

Sources

"Desegregation of the Armed Forces." The Truman Library.  

Gardner, Michael R., George M Elsey, Kweisi Mfume. Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks. Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2003.

Sitkoff, Harvard. "African-Americans, American Jews, and the Holocaust. In The Achievement of American Liberalism: The New Deal and Its Legacies. Ed. William Henry Chafe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 181-203.