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"Blacks in the Military: Progress Slow, Discontent High." Congressional Quarterly 29, no. 38 (September 18, 1971): 1941-44.

This article presents the problems faced by African-Americans who served in Vietnam in a historical context by reviewing both Harry Truman's executive order desegregating the armed forces and John F. Kennedy's executive order which was designed to eliminate discrimination both on and off military bases.

Furthermore, several military and non-military reports are reviewed which help to give a more complete view of the situation including a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) report on discrimination in off base housing in West Germany, an Air Force report on discrimination on bases in the United States, and two Pentagon reports on discrimination on bases in both Europe and Southeast Asia.


At the beginning of 1948, the Navy had a total of four Negro officers, the Marine Corps had one, the Air force 310 and the Army 1,306. They all commanded black units.

Midway through 1948, President Truman took an historic step toward eliminating discrimination in the military services. Four administrations later, the armed forces still were struggling to become an equal opportunity employer – although by 1948 standards, the changes have been revolutionary.

By 1971 standards, however, the only revolutionary changes are those that threaten to erupt from discontent within the ranks. Racial dissent has been smoldering – sometimes bursting into flames – in the armed services since the peak years of the Vietnam war.

Team after team of Pentagon civil rights experts has ventured into the field to study the race relations problem. Stacks of reports have been filed warning of unresolved frustrations within minority groups. And, scores of policy directives have been issued.

Where in 1948 the Navy had just four black officers, in 1971 it boasts a minority representation of 518 Negro officers or seven in every 1,000. The Marine Corps reported a slightly higher ratio of 13 black officers in every 1,000 for a total of 218 Negroes with the rank of second lieutenant or above. Nationwide, 111 persons of every 1,000 are black.

President Truman told newsmen in 1950 that as a result of the changes he had forced upon the military, equality within the ranks would be achieved "within the reasonably near future." But equality has not been achieved and as a result:
  • The NAACP warned in an April after a tour of European military installations that "an uncomfortable number of young Negro servicemen are disenchanted, alienated and have lost faith in the capacity and the will of the armed forces to deal honestly with their problems."

  • An Air Force human rights team toured 15 domestic bases and reported July 26 that "there is discrimination and racism in the command and it is ugly." The report urged base commanders to stop "gambling with festering frustrations" and to enforce civil rights measures.

  • After a three-week tour of European bases, a report issued by the Pentagon's civil rights division Nov. 2, 1970, said: "We did not anticipate finding such acute frustration and such volatile anger as we found among the blacks..."

  • A second Pentagon civil rights study group toured U.S. installations in Southeast Asia and reported June 15, 1971: "We found that blacks and whites were moving farther and farther away from each other, resegregating through accelerated racial polarization."
References. Black Caucus recommendations, Weekly Report p. 1173, 783; Congress and the Nation Vol. I, p. 1613, 1617, 1618, 1620; CQ Civil Rights Progress Report 1970 (book); Military Justice, ERR Report 1970 Vol. II, p. 733.

Breakdown of Old Habits

President Harry S. Truman, after trying for a year to push through equal opportunity legislation, issued an executive order July 26, 1448, which shook the War Department to its foundations. The order provided for "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, religion or national origin" and that promotions were to be based "solely on merit and fitness." The order did not abolish segregation within the armed services – that was not officially done away with until 1950.

Prior to the Truman directive, the Army had rigidly segregated units and a strictly enforced 10-percent quota for Negroes in the entire Army. The Navy, which had abolished segregation officially during World War II, had just four black officers in 1948 and 95 percent of the mess attendants were Negroes until the mid-1950s.

Before Mr. Truman made his announcement, Richard B. Russell (D Ga.: 1933-1971), later chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered a bitter floor speech aimed at blocking the President's move. "The mandatory intermingling of the races throughout the services will be a terrific blow to the efficiency and fighting power of the armed services," Russell argued. "It is sure to increase the numbers of men who will be disabled through communicable diseases. It will increase the rate of crime committed by servicemen."

"I am proud to claim many of them (blacks) as my friends," Russell said. "I know many Negroes who are as law abiding as any white man. Many of them are models of cleanliness. The moral and spiritual life of numbers of Negroes is above reproach."

Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson May 11, 1949, appointed James C. Evans, a Negro civilian, as his consultant on race relations – the Pentagon's first. Evans noted the progress that had been made in the Army with respect to the blacks. In 1939, there were five Negro officers in the Army and a decade later the Army led all services with 1,173 Negro officers and 71,189 enlisted men (all in segregated units).

After the appointment of Evans, the four branches of the military began a slow process of desegregating. The Army was the last service to officially submit, on Jan. 16, 1950, a plan for desegregating its ranks.

Civil Rights in Pentagon. After Congress had passed two major pieces of civil rights legislation (the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960) and with President Kennedy exerting pressure for a third and more sweeping legislative program, the Pentagon was pushed to take action of its own in 1963.

Exactly 15 years (to the day) after Mr. Truman made his historic announcement about equal opportunities for all races in the military, President Kennedy went a step further by issuing an executive order aimed at protecting the civil rights of military personnel both on base and off. The Kennedy directive held base commanders responsible for enforcing the policy. The Pentagon is still working on the problem.(Congress and the Nation Vol. I, p. 1635)

Mr. Kennedy established a division in the Pentagon responsible for civil rights and equal opportunities. L. Howard Bennett, a black municipal court judge from Minneapolis, was named the division's first administrator. He still holds one of the Pentagon's top administrative positions.

Mr. Kennedy issued his civil rights directives July 26, 1963. Two months later, the Civil Rights Commission issued its third biennial report. (Congress and the Nation Vol. I, p. 1613)

Although the commission statement commended the military for "considerable progress" since 1948, the report condemned the wide disparities which still existed between black and white military personnel. "The Navy," the report stated, "has shown little or no improvement since 1948."

Persistent Problems In Ranks

As outgrowth of the civil rights movement was a new awareness and pride in being black. During the late 1960s, manifestations of black awareness were appearing in the military. The Afro hair style, black power salutes and handshakes became targets for white segregationists.

"We cannot shrug off the black power movement in the military as simply some integration situation," said Rep. John R. Rarick (D La.) on Sept. 23, 1969. "For by their handshakes, their salutes and flag, these dupes openly identify themselves as members of an international movement whose allegiance is ultimately to Moscow."

Rarick said: "A simple, immediate solution to the problem would be to reassign the troops to unite according to race."

The Pentagon was aware of the problems and polarization caused by self-emphasis of a minority group within the ranks. In the fall of 1969, Bennett, the Pentagon's chief civil rights man, took a one-week tour of military installations in Southeast Asia. Bennett said he noticed a "dynamic new dimension in young black troops expressing a far greater concern for their black brothers and sisters on the outside than had their predecessors."

Bennett cited two major problems that he observed on his trip. First, blacks were not being promoted consistent with their performance or training. Second, blacks were being denied the symbolism of black unity salutes and the Afro styled hair.

A year after Bennett's tour to Southeast Asia, race-related violence among servicemen was increasing, not diminishing. Another Pentagon tour was planned. A White House spokesman said the President was "deeply concerned about the increasing number of incidents between black and white servicemen."

The President appointed Frank W. Render II, a 34-year-old educator, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in charge of the equal opportunity division (civil rights). Render became Bennett's superior and headed the investigating team.

The Nov. 2, 1970 report by Render to Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird outlined the failure of command leadership to exercise authority and responsibility in race-related problem areas, the failure by white leaders in the military to understand the difference between black awareness and black militancy, the unequal administration of military justice with the scales weighted against the black servicemen.

Recommendations in the Render report included establishment of a race-relation education program in all branches of the armed forces, removal of officers who demonstrated a bigoted or insensitive attitude toward racial problems, establishment of human relations councils whereby an informal structure would be provided for the airing of grievances and assignment of an equal opportunity (EO) officer at all major military installations. The EO officer would have a direct line to the base commander, thus eliminating the chain of command communications system on human relations issues.

All of Render's program recommendations were adopted to some degree. The military launched an across-the-board race relations education program and at the same time established a Race Relations Institute at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., which was responsible for training instructors to teach the service-wide course. The Institute's first 100-man class was scheduled to begin its six-week training program Oct. 1.

Render told reporters July 27, 1971, that 10 or 12 officers, from company commanders up to generals, had been relieved of command, transferred or reprimanded because of their racial attitudes. Gen. James H. Polk, who was in charge of Army forces in Europe, received a premature retirement in March after his lack of initiative on racial problems in the European theater had been chronicled and criticized by an NAACP investigating team and by Render's own study group.

Rep. William Clay (D Mo.), a black House member, said: "It is common knowledge among black GIs that Gen. Polk is a bigot..." Clay's statement was included in the March 25, 1971, Congressional Record. According to him, Polk was forced to resign "because he adamantly refused to carry out the established regulations and policies of the military."

Polk was replace[d] by Gen. Michael S. Davison, who said since he had taken charge of the European based troops a number of officers had been relieved of their command because of racial considerations. Davison refused to say how many or who the officers were. The Army's record on race relations will, in the final analysis, depend on the quality of its leadership, Davison said. He also noted that race relations among U.S. troops stationed in Europe were worse than those in Vietnam where the men were forced to find a greater degree of harmony in the face of a shooting enemy.

Second Render Report. Despite the scope and variety of the plans proposed by Render after his first tour of military installations and the fanfare which the Pentagon gave Render's finds and recommendations, the racial situation continued to deteriorate.

A second tour of military installations, this time in Southeast Asia, was conducted by a 15-man team headed by Render during the spring of 1971. The report June 15 told of "blacks and whites moving farther and farther away from each other" and of minority group frustration that was "so great and their pent up fury so high that many of them have exceeding difficulty expressing themselves and articulating their complaints... The conditions that affected them were so overwhelming that it was producing a verbal paralysis."

The men interviewed by Render's team did not describe an easing of racial tension, but rather "situations pregnant with the potential for serious disorders." Despite the ominous picture drawn by the report, Render expressed hope because of "a command awareness, resourcefulness and leadership in this area that did not exist two or three years ago."

The report described military justice as one of the major points of racial irritation. "The severest scrutiny must be given to the use of the administrative discharge to preclude its utilization as a means to unfairly remove blacks from the services," the report stated. "Every effort must be made and action taken to preserve the integrity of the administration of military justice and the proceedings of non-judicial punishment... Blacks especially must have their confidence restored in and assured of the inherent impartiality and fairness of these proceedings."

Render's second report again stressed massive race relations education programs, human relations councils and improved communications between command leadership and the enlisted man.

Render was asked to resign from his position as head of the Pentagon's civil rights division by Defense Secretary Laird and did so on Aug. 26. Although both Render and the Pentagon were cautious in their statements to the public, the Pentagon said that during Render's one year with the Defense Department, the racial tension had not been significantly eased, and the number of complaints from minority servicemen had not significantly declined.

Air Force Report. A human relations team dispatched by the Air Force issued a scathing report on race relations July 26. The Air Force did not release the report, however, until it was leaked to The New York Times in late August.

After touring 15 domestic Air Force installations in the spring of 1971, the 15-man team reported:
  • "The gut feel that we have is that supervisors, and we mean the vast majority of supervisors of all ranks, are simply not doing their job... All up and down the chain of command there is a tragic indifference to human needs."

  • "Whites misunderstand the meaning of the symbols of black culture or signs of solidarity... Blacks and whites don't communicate freely to dissolve these misunderstandings."

  • "Unequal treatment is manifested in unequal punishment, offensive and inflammatory language, prejudice in the assignment of details, lack of products for blacks in the PX, harassment by security police under orders to break up five or more blacks in a group, double standards in enforcement of regulations. The cause of this is blatant supervisory prejudice in many cases, but for the most part it was the result of supervisory indifference."
Contained in the Air Force report, which had not been meant for public perusal, was a stinging indictment of the latest innovations for easing racial tensions in the military – the Render program. Although all of Render's recommendations have not yet been put into effect, those that have were criticized by the human relations team for not producing the intended results.

The report was made at the request of Lt. Gen. George B. Simler, the man in charge of the Air Force training command. In an interview with The New York Times Sept. 2, Simler said he had already begun a quiet program aimed at correcting the problems outlined in the report.

When asked how he would combat the incidents of racial slurs, the General said: "I've got an aggressive chief of chaplains, and I've told him to cut out that language when the chaplain is around."

Housing Discrimination. One of the most persistent irritants to race relations in the military has been the inability of black servicemen to live or socialize in some of the communities which surround military installations.

When the government looks for land upon which to build military installations, the regions that have the greatest supply of land at the lowest prices are rural, far from major metropolitan centers. The towns that are near such a base are therefore often rural and generally lacking the breadth of racial mixtures that a major city provides.

President Kennedy's 1963 directive to the Pentagon held base commanders responsible for stopping discrimination against servicemen in surrounding communities. Kennedy's plan did not work. As a result, base commanders were ordered in 1970 to use economic clout on local residents by declaring an establishment of an entire town "off limits" if there was not compliance with the anti-discrimination laws. That directive had limited success.

A March 19, 1971, directive from Army Secretary Stanley R. Resor said, "Increased emphasis is being placed on eradicating the serious problem of discrimination in off-post housing which continues to plague the minority group soldier and his family."

Navy Secretary John Chafee, who is responsible for both the Navy and the Marine Corps, issued a memorandum Aug. 12 which stated that "in-depth investigation confirms that discrimination is widespread despite the equal opportunity gains made in the past few years." Chafee ordered base commanders to "advise local governmental officials, community leaders and private groups that future base closure decisions will take into account local area practices with respect to open housing."

The most blatant instances of housing discrimination have occurred overseas, specifically in West Germany and Japan. The latest and highest level move taken to alleviate the problem was a joint communique issued by the Departments of State and Defense Sept. 7 to all U.S. diplomats and military commanders overseas. The message said President Nixon regarded the unequal treatment of black Americans in uniform "a matter of serious concern" and therefore a "top priority matter." The communique marked the first time that diplomatic missions had been involved in trying to exert a broad-based pressure on foreign governments to enforce a nondiscriminatory policy toward minority group American servicemen.

Congress Stands Back

The impetus for change of policy in the military regarding racial problems has traditionally come from either the President or from the Pentagon's own personnel offices, not from Congress. An equal opportunity regulation aimed specifically at racial discrimination was put on the books by President Truman nine years before Congress passed the first of several civil rights laws in 1957.

Although Congress at first refused to approve an equal opportunity policy for the military, the two civil rights acts of the 1960s went beyond anything the armed forces already had accomplished. Prior to the passage of the open housing law in 1968 (PL 90-2?) the military was not obligated to pressure communities surrounding military bases for equal treatment of the soldiers.

There has been little action and no proposed legislation coming from either the House or Senate Armed Services Committees concerning equal rights in the military. Since the early 1950s, five men have been in charge of the two committees. They have all represented states from the deep South and not a single one voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1968.

F. Edward Herbert (D La.) succeeded L. Mendel Rivers (D S.C.; 1941-70) as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee after Rivers died Dec. 28, 1970. Rivers had served as committee chairman for five years, succeeding Carl Vinson (D Ga. 1914-65).

John C. Stennis (D Miss.) became chairman of the Armed Services Committee after Richard B. Russell (D Ga.) vacated the position in 1969 to take over the Appropriations Committee. Russell died Jan. 21, 1971. Russell was chairman of the Armed Services from 1951-1952 and again from 1955-1969.

Herbert, Rivers, Stennis and Russell also voted against the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1970.

Ad Hoc Committee. Although the more formal channels of Congress have not been used to fight discrimination in the military, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D Mich.) has formed his own ad hoc committee "to [?] racism in the military." Conyers, a member of the Black Caucus and the Judiciary and Government Operations Committees, announced Aug. 10 that the committee had been formed to look into the [racial?] problems of the military and that the group included representatives of the NAACP, the National Urban League and the United Auto Workers Union.

According to Conyers, the group will investigate the situation through hearings at Michigan military installations, the first of which was scheduled for some time in October. It was his hope, he said, that the investigations would be carried out in states other than Michigan.

Black General Officers

On active duty in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, there are 1,328 officers with general rank (brigadier general or above; rear admiral or above). Six of these positions are filled by Negroes. Four of the six were promoted during 1971.

In the history of the United States, 10 Negroes have held a general officer's position in all the military services; six of the 10 were promoted to the rank during 1971. The 10:

ARMY – Maj. Gen. Frederick Ellis Davison, the third Negro to attain general's rank, promoted 1968; Brig. Gen. Rosco L. Cartright promoted 1971; Brig. Gen. James F. Hamlet, promoted 1971; Brig. Gen. Oliver W. Dillard, promoted 1971.

NAVY – Rear Adm. Samuel Lee Gravely Jr., promoted 1971.

AIR FORCE – Brig. Gen. Daniel James, promoted 1970.


The National Guard and the Army Reserves each has one Negro general – Brig. Gen. Cunningham C. Bryant, National Guard, promoted 1971; Brig Gen. Benjamin L. Hunton, Army Reserve, promoted 1971.

The first Negro to be promoted to general was Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who was promoted to the rank temporarily in 1940 and retired nine months later. Davis was recalled to active duty as a brigadier general after the outbreak of World War II and served until July 13, 1948, when he retired. Davis died at the age of 93 Nov. 26, 1970. His 50 years with the military were spent in segregated units.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the son of Brig. Gen. Davis, was the second Negro to attain general's rank in the military, the first in the Air Force. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1954, major general in 1959 and lieutenant general in 1965. Davis retired in 1970.

Black In Armed Forces

The following figures represent the number of Negro enlisted men and officers (and their percentage of the total strength) in the active armed services as of March 31, 1971:

Officers Enlisted Total
Army 5,480 (3.5%) 140,625 (13.7%) 146,105 (12.3%)
Navy 518 (.7%) 29,660 (5.3%) 30,178 (4.8%)
Marine Corps 287 (1.3%) 22,296 (11.2%) 22,583 (10.2%)
Air Force 2,216 (1.7%) 74,745 (11.9%) 76,961 (10.2%)
Total 8,501 (2.2%) 267,326 (11.1%) 275,827 (9.9%)

According to the Pentagon, blacks compromise 11.2 percent of those stationed in Vietnam (12.3 percent of the enlisted men; 2.7 percent of the officers). Of those killed in action from 1961 through the first quarter of 1971, 12.4 percent or 5,570 were black (13.6 percent of the enlisted men killed; 2 percent of the officers killed).

The 1970 census showed that 11.5 percent of the population in the United States was black.

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