Taking Jim Crow out of uniform: A. Philip Randolph and the desegregation of the U.S. military – Special Report: The Integrated Military – 50 Years

Nearly fifty years ago, during his reelection campaign, President
Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ordering the “equality of
treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services.”

In the years since, the military has gone from being viciously
segregated to being widely regarded as the best integrated institution
in the United States. As a result, Truman’s decision to integrate the
army has become, arguably, one of the most important decisions of his
presidency.

And yet why he made the decision is not entirely clear. His
opponent, Republican Thomas Dewey, had not made civil rights a
particularly key issue in his campaign. Socialist Party candidate
Norman Thomas and Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace had, but
they could be dismissed as fringe candidates.

In his 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before
the Civil Rights Movement in the South, John Egerton analyzed the
situation as follows:

“[Truman] was accused of playing politics on the military
desegregation order – and as far as his timing was concerned, there can
be little doubt that he acted with an eye on the campaign. But who saw
any political advantage in taking the initiative on such a
controversial issue? A 1946 national opinion survey had found that
two-thirds of all [W]hite Americans believed [B]lacks were already
being treated fairly in the society at large. Congress passed a new
Selective Service Act in June 1948 that left segregation in place, and
Truman signed it into law. Southerners in both houses were fighting
tooth and nail against any modification in the racial rules of the
armed forces, and most of the military top brass were also dragging
their feet on the issue. Just about the only person pressing Truman to
take action was A. Philip Randolph – a forceful and persuasive man, to
be sure, but not one who wielded great power. Some of the President’s
advisers did see political capital to be made from a liberal stance on
race, but prudence might have led them to suggest waiting until after
the election to take Jim Crow out of uniform.”

Egerton goes on to say that Truman agreed entirely with the
substance of desegregating the military, but for “a man who was looking
like a double-digit loser in the polls, it was a bold decision.”

Egerton dismisses the efforts of Randolph. Nevertheless, a case can
be made that Randolph’s efforts played a significant role in Truman’s
decision – particularly after considering Randolph’s influence with
President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,
had been instrumental in convincing Roosevelt to integrate the federal
workforce in 1941. To bring political pressure on Roosevelt, Randolph
began organizing a March on Washington Movement and threatened to bring
100,000 African Americans to the nation’s capital.

Frightened by the thought of such an unprecedented demonstration,
Roosevelt ordered Joseph L. Rauh, then a young assistant in the Office
of Emergency Management, to draft an executive order which would
satisfy Randolph. After writing several drafts which Randolph rejected
as not being strong enough, Rauh questioned his superiors, “What the
hell has he got over the President of the United States?”

Finally, Rauh submitted a version which pleased Randolph and six
days before the march was to take place, Roosevelt signed Executive
Order 8802, which permitted African Americans to fill the lucrative
jobs that were opening up in preparation for World War II.

That executive order did not change segregation in the armed forces,
however. Given the political situation of the time – preparing for
World War II – Randolph had decided not to push for military
desegregation and called off the march. He would later revisit the
concept of peaceful mass demonstration in 1963 when he led the March on
Washington which featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream”
speech.

Randolph would get his opportunity to push for military
desegregation after the United States won World War II with the
enthusiastic and important participation by African American troops.
When Truman called for a peacetime draft in 1948, Randolph – along with
Grant Reynolds, Commissioner of Corrections for New York State –
founded the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and
Training. With the help of a young pacifist named Bayard Rustin, the
committee began a civil disobedience campaign against the segregated
military.

On March 22, Truman invited a group of Black leaders to the White
House to discuss the subject of an executive order. Among them were:
Randolph; Walter White, executive secretary for the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Mary McLeod Bethune,
the noted civil rights activist and educator; and Charles Houston, a
special counsel for the NAACP.

The following description of the meeting comes from A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait:

“As Randolph remembers, the meeting had been proceeding smoothly and
amicably, until he said to Truman, ‘Mr. President, after making several
trips around the country, I can tell you that the mood among Negroes of
this country is that they will never bear arms again until all forms of
bias and discrimination are abolished.’

“In a battle of bluntness Harry Truman came out second to no man,
and he told Randolph, ‘I wish you hadn’t made that statement. I don’t
like it at all.’

“Charles Houston intervened: ‘But Mr. President, don’t you want to
know what is happening in the country?’ Truman said he certainly wanted
to know what was happening in the country; a president attracted more
than enough yes men.

“‘Well, that’s what I’m giving you, Mr. President,’ Randolph said,
seizing the advantage before it disappeared again. ‘I’m giving you the
facts.’ When the President allowed him to proceed, Randolph ran
headlong into Truman again: ‘Mr. President, as you know, we are calling
upon you to issue an executive order abolishing segregation in the
armed forces.’ At this point, Truman simply thanked his visitors for
coming, and said there didn’t seem to be much more that they could talk
fruitfully about.

“But Truman’s rebuff merely aroused Randolph’s defiance. Testifying,
nine days later, during hearings on the universal military training
bill, Randolph told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

“‘This time Negroes will not take a Jim Crow draft lying down. The
conscience of the world will be shaken as by nothing else when
thousands and thousands of us second-class Americans choose
imprisonment in preference to permanent military slavery…I personally
will advise Negroes to refuse to fight as slaves for a democracy they
cannot possess and cannot enjoy.'”

Randolph was not supported in his campaign against a segregated
military by many establishment voices. The Amsterdam News, one of the
nation’s most widely read Black newspapers, wrote an editorial
condemning Randolph. However, a poll of young Black men showed that 71
percent favored a civil disobedience campaign against the draft – a
striking poll, given the history of participation in the military by
African Americans.

And words were being joined by actions. In one of the best-known
cases, Winfrid Lynn, a Long Island landscape gardener, told his draft
board that while he was “ready to serve in any unit of the armed forces
of my country which is not segregated by race,” he would “not be
compelled to serve in a unit undemocratically selected as a Negro
group.” He went to jail.

At the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – where
the young mayor of Minneapolis, named Hubert H. Humphrey, led a fight
against the Southern segregationists known as Dixiecrats – scores of
African Americans – led by Randolph – picketed the convention hall.
Less than a month later, Truman signed the executive order.

After the order was signed, Randolph sent Truman a telegram praising
the president for his “high order of statesmanship and courage.” With
that, the civil disobedience campaign officially came to an end.

It is difficult to say whether Randolph’s campaign was a key factor
in Truman’s decision – the new biography of Truman by David McCullough
does not discuss it. But the fact is, it was one of the few organized
public expressions of moral revulsion against segregation at the time.
And it was one of the forerunners to later battles against segregation
in the 1950s and 1960s.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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