By Rawn James Jr. Bloomsbury Press. 304 pages. $28
Reviewed by Charles Shea LeMone
CHARLES SHEA LEMONE is an author in Ferrum.
Rawn James Jr. skillfully unravels the incremental steps in the long battle to bring racial equality to the military. That culminated Oct. 26, 1948, when President Harry Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military.
Ever since blacks fought in the Revolutionary War, the country’s military machine had problems accepting more than 10 percent of its fighting force because of the color of their skin. For more than 100 years, examples of undisguised racism were unchecked in the Army and the Navy. The situation was brought to the forefront again in preparation for World War I.
Once again, blacks, in numbers that greatly overshadowed their percentage of the population, lined up at Selective Service branches eager to show their mettle and rise above second-class citizenship by participating in the war effort. Their goal was “the Double V”: victory abroad over fascism and victory over racism at home. The path seemed clear.
However, with so many power brokers in Congress coming from below the Mason-Dixon Line, President Woodrow Wilson’s War Department repeatedly compromised with the men of the South. They were quick to assure the president that segregation had to be maintained by all means; and the white gentlemen of the South knew how to deal with their Negroes in peace time as well as war time. Then again, Southerners had always been leery when it came to arming and training black men to fight.
Then there were the logistics of where black soldiers would be trained and how the townsfolk would react to their presence in the South, where whites maintained a stranglehold on the concept of white superiority and black subservience. Race riots were not uncommon near the training grounds, and lynching still was not a federal crime at the time. When World War I ended, countless black soldiers found that wearing their uniforms home meant being beaten by mobs of angry whites. Meanwhile, black leaders persistently raised the subject of war veterans facing the same inequality and lack of freedom they had fought to abolish as enlisted men.
President Truman explained signing Executive Order 9981 this way: “No sooner were we finished with the war than racial and religious intolerance began to appear and threaten the very things we had just fought for.” Still, there were many black heroes on the battlefields — and here at home — who did not live long enough to hear or read those words and experience the dawn of change.