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American Forces Press Service

Defense Department Reflects on Truman's Fight for Civil Rights

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

WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 2008 – The Defense Department commemorated 60 years of armed forces integration during a ceremony at the Pentagon today and recognized one the pioneers of the civil rights movement.

Even during an election year in 1948, when the candidates had no pressure to act on civil rights, President Harry S. Truman sent the first civil rights message to Congress, a comprehensive 10-point proposal outlining equal opportunity for all citizens. One month later, the polls showed that 82 percent of Americans opposed Truman’s program.

When Truman won their party’s nomination, southern Democrats revolted, causing a split in the party that led to the formation of the States’ Rights Democratic Party – also known as the Dixiecrat Party. The sole purpose for the Dixiecrat Party was to get Truman out of the White House, historian Michael R. Gardner said as he reflected on Truman’s civil rights efforts during the Pentagon ceremony.

Less than 10 days after the Dixiecrat Party formed, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed the two executive orders mandating fair practices in the federal government and equality and fair treatment within the armed forces.

“If you look at Harry Truman’s background, he was the most unlikely president to integrate the military,” Gardner said.

Truman was born into a racist Missouri family; his grandparents owned slaves. He never went to college, and he grew up in a community where the use of racial epithets was commonplace. Truman was conditioned to be racist, Gardner added.

Truman went to France to fight in World War I as an Army captain in 1918. During the last four months of the war, he witnessed brutal fighting, but also saw extraordinary bravery and sacrifice by American soldiers. Truman discovered he was a natural leader of men and developed a deep, life-long devotion to the military, Gardner continued.

On April 12, 1945, Vice President Truman became the 33rd president upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the war’s end, a tidal wave of 12 million American veterans returned home, 880,000 of whom were African-American.

The return of black veterans re-energized the Ku Klux Klan, and in many communities across America, the Klan was ready to greet the returning troops. But little national attention focused on this growing racial discord. In fact, 30 of the 48 states enforced some form of segregation, Gardner said.

On Sept. 19, 1946, Truman met with civil rights officials who told him about an honorably discharged black sergeant arrested in Aiken, S.C., for disorderly conduct. During the course of Isaac Woodard’s overnight incarceration, the 27-year old decorated veteran was so savagely beaten that one of his eyes was gouged out and he was blinded in the other.

The state refused to prosecute the 215-pound white policeman who blinded Woodard. The president ordered his attorney general to step in, and the sheriff was indicted and tried in South Carolina federal court, only to go free after an all-white jury deliberated for 30 minutes.

For Truman, this incident was the defining moment of the civil rights crusade that officially launched on Dec. 5, 1946, when he issued an executive order for the nation’s first civil rights commission, Gardner said.

“[Truman] went on to exert his moral leadership in order to achieve two fantastic executive orders to make our federal work force colorblind and to create opportunities of equality for every American in the armed forces,” said Ken Hechler, a guest speaker at today’s ceremony and a special assistant for Truman during his administration.

“It was my honor to serve for four years on Harry Truman’s personal White House staff,” Hechler said. “Although he was brought up as a racist, he became a great champion of civil rights.”

With less than 10 percent of Americans agreeing with civil rights, Truman was the type of president who refused to falter when he thought public opinion was wrong, Hechler said.

“[Truman] always used to mention eight words from Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

Regarding the 82 percent of Americans who opposed Truman’s civil rights program, Hechler quoted a line from Truman’s diary: “Polls are just a snapshot of the moment. It takes courage, it takes honesty, it takes forthrightness for people in positions of leadership.”

“And that’s Harry Truman’s moral compass,” Hechler concluded. “And his moral compass showed us two fantastic executive orders.”

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