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The Military’s Discrimination Problem Was So Bad in the 1960s, Kennedy Formed a Committee

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Black soldiers won Medals of Honor in the Civil War, charged German trenches in World War I and later fought the Nazis, but they were still serving in a segregated military.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which declared that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” Officially, the United States’ armed services were desegregated.

But in the early 1960s, the military was still rife with discrimination, particularly off base.

The change came slowly, according to Douglas Bristol, a fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society and a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. “This is a very gradual thing,” Professor Bristol said. “Most bases are in the South. You can train year round. The congressmen there get re-elected forever, so they have tremendous clout. And in the South, segregation is the law.”

With such issues in mind, President John F. Kennedy convened the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces, known as the Gesell Committee. The panel of civil rights leaders and lawyers met officially only seven times. The rest of the time, they operated in a “shirt sleeve,” nose-to-the-grindstone manner, out of a small office near the White House, aided by four staff members who brought them reams of data on integration in the armed forces.

The committee fanned out across the country. The chairman, the lawyer and future federal judge Gerhard Gesell, liked to travel with the executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney Young. The two would interview commanders, support personnel and business owners close to base. Mr. Young approached the African-American servicemembers, while Mr. Gesell spoke to the white interviewees. Everywhere they looked they saw black servicemembers unable to find adequate housing, catch taxis or get seated at restaurants. In its report, the committee argued that the military was responsible for its servicemembers’ experience off, as well as on, the base, and so must take an active role by refusing to patronize segregated establishments.

This idea was not especially popular in some quarters. The South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond entered a newspaper editorial into the Congressional Record that argued that the military “do not exist for the purpose of pushing the Kennedys’ pet social theories or for helping the Kennedy administration win more Negro votes in the 1964 elections.”

In a 1975 interview, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said: “They concluded that there were many deficiencies in our policies and practices that we should correct. We set about doing so.” By framing such discrimination as a military matter, the White House was reaching for a way for the federal government to enforce desegregation in housing and services two years before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the years since, said Professor Douglas, the military became something of a leader on equality and diversity. “The commanders who were supporters of segregation, there’s just no place for them anymore,” he said.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !