News: The armed forces paved the way for Civil Rights in America
ARLINGTON, Va. - We proudly and joyously recognize and celebrate the accomplishments, contributions, and history of African-Americans during Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month, an annual observance in remembrance of important people and events in the history of African-Americans in the United States.
Throughout our country’s history, these men and women fought to form and preserve our Union and to promote the ideals of freedom, justice, and security.
The origin of African-American History Month extends as far back as 1915, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson traveled from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in the late summer to participate in a national observance of the 50th anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois.
He was so moved by the event that he and several other intellectuals formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to promote the scientific study of African-American life and history.
The group announced Negro History Week in February, 1926, which officially expanded into a monthlong celebration in 1976 as part of our nation’s Bicentennial celebration.
This year’s theme is “Civil Rights in America,” a movement that is largely the story of free people of color and then African-Americans to define and enumerate what rights pertain to citizens in civil society.
It has been the history of enlisting political parties to recognize the need for our governments, state and federal, to codify and protect those rights. However, granting equal rights to African-Americans was an unpopular endeavor for any politician since it threatened to upend a way of life that had been entrenched in our national psyche for hundreds of years.
The integration of African-Americans in the armed forces became grave questions for both the military and the black community during World War II. While segments of black America demanded integration and full opportunity for its soldiers, War Department officials and politicians insisted that the military would not be used as a “sociological laboratory” for effecting social change.
Although this attitude reflected the overall policies of the War Department, the Army underwent some noteworthy shifts during the war.
African-American soldiers played a significant role in World War II; more than half a million served in Europe. Despite the numbers, they faced racial discrimination: prior to the war the military maintained a racially-segregated force. That changed in 1941, when pressure from African-American civil rights leaders convinced the government to set up all-black combat units, as experiments. They were designed to see if African-American soldiers could perform military tasks on the same level as white soldiers.
The patriotism, bravery, and ability exhibited by African-Americans serving in the armed forces was evidence that they could perform with valor under the physical and psychological stresses that affected white and African-American soldiers alike.
The accomplishments of the “Triple Nickels,” the “Red Tail Angels” of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the brave drivers of the “Red Ball Express” and the “Black Panthers” of the 761st Tank Battalion ensured that U.S. forces prevailed.
If African-Americans can excel on the battlefield, then one could reasonably expect them to do as well or better in this nation’s communities and industries. Despite the many storied accomplishments of African-Americans defending this country’s freedoms abroad, stateside sentiment regarding equal civil rights was still negative.
President Harry S. Truman, who served and retired from the Army Reserve, played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.
After the end of World War II, he placed civil rights high on his political agenda. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, which forbade discriminating against military personnel because of race, color, religion, or national origin.
Desegregation of the armed forces was a major civil rights victory for African-Americans and the military, one that the Army Reserve has benefited from tremendously. Although only 13 percent of the population of the United States, African-Americans make up more than 20 percent of our active duty force and 22 percent of the Army Reserve.
Our Army has come a long way in the struggle for equality, and we owe our successes today to African-American service members of the past who continued to step forward to serve their country, even when their country failed to uphold their fundamental rights. We can learn much from the heroic actions of these brave men. Through adversity, they held their ground and kept moving forward.
Even after over a decade of conflict, we too must keep moving forward - to modernize our force, adapt our institutions, and maintain our combat edge. We must look to the past and apply hard-won lessons-learned to increase our strength and resilience as we move into the future.