By the time World War II ended, some of President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to address civil rights issues within the military began to erode. After Harry Truman took office, Roosevelt-era programs meant to address the inequalities faced by blacks who served on the frontlines, like the Fair Employment Practices Commission, would be terminated by Congress.
Faced with pressure from black voters who largely supported Republicans prior to the Roosevelt administration, Truman—who referred to blacks as “coons” and “n*****s” while serving in the U.S. Senate and was raised by Confederate sympathizers—was forced to evolve on race issues.
Met by a Congress that sought to stymie racial progress, Truman used executive privileges to enact policies aimed at leveling the playing field for blacks.
One of Truman’s most impactful measures came on July 26th, 1948, when he signed Executive Order 9981. It declared “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” At the time, approximately one million African-Americans served in the armed forces.
The seeds for Truman’s directive could have been planted by a letter he received two years prior from R.R. Wright, a black military officer. The message detailing a vicious attack by a police chief on black World War II veteran Isaac Woodard troubled Truman; who used the assault to justify actions on civil rights.
Truman’s executive order also established a committee to study the armed forces and come up with effective strategies to implement integration. It initially faced heavy opposition by high-ranking military officers. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley initially said the directive would only go into effect when the entire country desegregated. Army secretary Kenneth Claiborne Royall was forced into retirement for failing for defying Truman’s integration order.
The last all-black military unit wouldn’t be abolished until 1954.