Reference Entry

Executive Order 9981.

Debora Duerksen

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Executive Order 9981.

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During World War II, even as African Americans fought to liberate Europe and Asia from fascist domination, they served in a segregated armed service in which severe restrictions were placed on their vocational training and promotional possibilities. With a few remarkable exceptions, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, blacks were recruited to serve in support roles and were barred from training in the use of sophisticated weaponry or from serving as doctors when qualified to do so.African American leaders had always viewed the abolition of segregation in the military as crucial to the fight against discrimination, and in the postwar period they began to exert pressure on the presidential administration of Harry S. Truman to honor the government's wartime commitments to freedom and equality for minorities. The activist and labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, played a crucial role in the success of the “Right to Fight” movement. His approach to civil rights lobbying, which involved directly confronting the executive and legislative branches of government with threats of mass action, differed markedly from the strategy used by the NAACP, which had typically sought to redress the injustices of Jim Crow in the courts.Truman, the son of a Missouri farmer, had served in World War I as an artillery captain, and he believed that segregation was detrimental to the armed forces. However, integration of the military was one of the more hotly contested points of his 1947 Fair Deal program. Southern politicians were outraged by the president's civil rights message of February 1948, which included the call for an end to discrimination in the military. But even as Dixiecrats threatened filibusters and desertion from the Democratic Party, legislation to institute a peacetime draft was introduced in late 1947 and scheduled for hearings in 1948. Randolph quickly formed the Committee against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training in November 1947. In March 1948 he demanded from the president an executive order ending segregation and declared to the Senate Armed Services Committee his intention to influence young men to refuse service in a segregated military.Facing growing polarization between the Right and the Left within his party, as well as the possibility of large-scale civil disobedience, Truman saw his first priority as securing the Democratic nomination in July 1948. Once nominated, however, he signed Executive Order 9981 on 26 July 1948, establishing the racially diverse Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, otherwise known as the Fahy Committee. Charged by the administration with accomplishing substantial integration of all the armed services, including the introduction of fair promotional and training practices, the Fahy Committee included two leading African Americans: Lester Granger, executive secretary of the National Urban League, and John Sengstacke, editor of the Chicago Defender.Although Executive Order 9981 had supporters such as Stuart Symington, the secretary of the air force, it encountered energetic resistance from some of the top brass in Washington, particularly in the army, the force with the highest concentration of minorities. General Omar Bradley publicly stated his opposition to 9981 in the Washington Post of 28 July 1948. Ultimately it took the battlefields of Korea to accomplish de facto integration of the military. Black troops arriving in Korea in 1950 were still serving in segregated units when the “Deuce-Four” (Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment) won the first firefight of the conflict in July 1950; then in November of that year the all-black Third Battalion of the Ninth Infantry Regiment proved itself at Kuneri. Landing their troops without even the minimum standard equipment provided to troops in World War II, American commanders had no choice but to deploy African Americans alongside whites in the front lines if defeat at Pusan was to be avoided.By the end of the Truman administration the Fahy Committee had indeed achieved substantial integration of the military, although there were still relatively few minority officers and the National Guard had yet to be desegregated. Historians therefore regard Executive Order 9981 as one of the few major accomplishments in the area of civil rights of the Truman administration.

Reference Entry.  866 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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