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American Forces Press Service

Defense Department Commemorates 60 Years of Armed Forces Integration

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 2008 – As the Defense Department commemorated the 60th anniversary of the armed forces’ integration today at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the observance is a reminder of “how far we’ve come toward living up to our founding ideals and how far we still have to go.”

The Defense Department began breaking down the barriers of race at the close of World War II in 1945. The military had just returned from fighting in Europe and the Pacific, yet black Americans who served with distinction still faced the bigotry of Jim Crow laws, he said.

“The treatment of patriots as second-class citizens was a sharp contradiction that gave impetus to change,” he continued.

Many measures against discrimination were taken to implement that change. There were public negotiations and tough speeches by civil rights activists. President Harry S. Truman signed executive orders mandating fair practices in the federal government and equality and fair treatment within the armed forces, Gates said.

“But mostly,” he continued, “there was the quiet service of black servicemen who willingly served their country though their country wasn’t willing to defend their rights.”

Gates noted comments recently made by retired Army general and former secretary of state Colin Powell about integration in today’s military.

“He said his predecessors were treated poorly by the military, but they served anyway, because by serving, you demonstrated that you were as good as anybody else, and therefore you should not be denied,” Gates said.

Despite the perseverance of black servicemembers, civil rights activists and even Truman’s executive orders, change was slow in coming. Attitudes were hard to change, and the executive orders met “stiff institutional resistance,” Gates said. For several more years, he noted, segregated units remained the norm, and integrated units were the exception. It wasn’t until the Korean War that the armed forces began to see a change in its dynamics and diversity, he said.

“As is often the case, harsh necessity became the midwife of progress,” he said. “With the sudden outbreak of war in Korea, battlefield requirements triumphed over Jim Crow.”

By the end of the Korean War in 1954, the last of the segregated units were dissolved, and momentum for equality and civil rights was carrying over into American society as a whole, Gates explained.

Despite many difficulties and periods of tension, ensuing decades brought equality and fair treatment not only for black military members, but also for all servicemembers regardless of race, gender, religion or culture. Today’s military members serve in an institution “that puts integrity and merit above all,” Gates said.

“We must make sure our military continues to be a great engine of progress and equality,” he added, “all the better to defend our people and the values that we hold dear.”

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