Steven Spielberg's Lincoln has revived discussion of the Great Emancipator's unique empathy for the freedoms of African Americans, but for blacks in the armed forces, at least, President Harry Truman may be deserving of a similar title. In his encyclopedic and compact history, The Double V: How Wars, Protest and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military, Rawn James Jr. writes that Truman desegregated the military by making the case for "the brotherhood of men before the law."
In The Double V (which stands for victory abroad and victory over racism at home), James writes about how tenuously white commanders and soldiers regarded the law when it came to African Americans. In a culture that regularly relies on the Tuskegee Airmen to symbolize the presence of African Americans in the military, the bloody clash of African American soldiers with racist Houstonians at Camp Logan in 1917 (which led to extended racial tension) is an uncomfortable revelation. The same is of stories from the frontlines in France, where black servicemen were treated with more equality by the French than by their American peers.
For James, the personal is political by default. He grew up a Navy brat; his father was a Navy commander, his grandfather served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II and his uncle was an Army colonel. James currently works as a civilian lawyer for the Office of the General Counsel for the Navy but the views and history he articulates in the book are entirely his own.
From that personal and professional purview, James says he was inspired to investigate desegregation in the military as the political foundation for the civil rights movement. His interest grew after the completion of his first book, Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation. Houston, Marshall's mentor, was in the Army's first class of African American officers after waves of student protest at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. Like thousands of others, James says, "Houston had lived a sheltered life until he entered the Army. He attended the University of Amherst and returned to Washington D.C. to teach at Howard, but it was in the military that he encountered the harsh reality of racial segregation.” His family had protected him from that particular cruelty. “But when he went overseas to serve,” James says, “he was almost killed by a white American soldier because his friend was on a date with a white woman."
The incident made James wonder about the process of desegregation in the military, which he writes was violent, slow and is still an underrated precursor to the civil rights movement. He says full integration of the armed forces was the "opening salvo" for civil rights legislation in America. During the Red Summer of 1919, when black soldiers returned home from World War I and Southern white men waited for them at train stations to attack them, it gave birth to what labor leader and social activist A. Phillip Randolph and the NAACP called the Double V, James says. "Randolph said the military will desegregate or he was going to march thousands of African Americans to Washington, which terrified Roosevelt, who worried it would make America look weak to Japan."
Until Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, African American officers in all branches of America's armed forces were treated as second-class citizens. That they were not considered fully commissioned officers at a time when most American men were drafted into the military was an attempt to disconnect African Americans from what James calls a "raw patriotism."
"The military service was seen as directly connected to citizenship because it was so widespread," James says. "(Abolitionist) Frederick Douglass urged folks to fight, and W.E.B DuBois famously said, 'Let us close ranks and stand shoulder to shoulder with other Americans gladly; when they see our sacrifice, they will not be able to continue to deny us.’ But of course, he was wrong."
James says African Americans were determined to desegregate the military because they knew they would have to serve as long as there was a draft, and for many years, the military was the main path to stable middle class life without a college degree.
"Though America has been involved in a conflict abroad for more than a decade now, less than two percent of Americans are engaged in that fight," James adds. That's in direct contrast to the world he writes about in The Double V, when the draft meant that everyone had a stake in the military's future. The military is now "the most racially integrated mass organization in the world," even if there are far fewer servicemen compared to the intricately linked civilian and military life reflected in the period James writes about. "The American view of a soldier is iconic because so few people know an American soldier."
Joshunda Sanders is writer and journalist who blogs about books at Big Book Lover.
Photo credit James C. Cassatt