The military began to change slightly as the war dragged on. Educated blacks were given greater opportunity to become officers. GIs were still segregated but circumstances dictated that at times battles were fought as essentially integrated units.
The navy was the toughest branch to breach thanks in large part to the narrow-minded attitude of Navy Secretary Frank Knox. Black sailors received greater opportunity after Knox’s death in April 1944. The new navy secretary, James Forrestal, was a member of the National Urban League and sympathetic to the cause of integration.
When the war ended the military was still officially segregated. An unlikely hero emerged in the form of President Harry Truman, who was born in the former slave state of Missouri and raised to believe blacks were inferior. He even used the “N” word all his life. But he had a strong belief in civil rights and that the laws of this country applied to everyone equally. People who served this country deserved to be treated as such.
In 1948, Truman signed an executive order banning discrimination in the armed forces. It meant the official end of military segregation, but it took time to implement and be accepted. Even during the Vietnam War there were racial incidents on bases in this country. Executive orders alone can’t change people’s prejudices.
We may be in a better state today, but can’t assume racial harmony exists simply because segregation has been officially banished. James’ book is a stark reminder that we can never take things for granted. We still have a ways to go to become a society where we’re all considered equals.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.