Friday, July 26, 2013

A Force of a Different Color

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."

Executive Order 9981
Issued by President Harry Truman
July 26, 1948

Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces on this day in 1948.

Some people cite this as an example of true presidential courage. Truman was running for re–election in a nation that was only starting to deal with its racial problems. His electoral prospects had been regarded as dim for months — ever since Gallup reported his approval rating was 36%. The New Deal wing of the Democratic Party had been trying to persuade Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Democrat, but he declined, and Truman was nominated by his party in mid–July.

Not quite two weeks later, he signed an executive order desegregating the military — and ushered in the modern civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement existed before Truman signed that executive order. While some may assign a different starting point, I have long believed that the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which upheld segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine, is when the civil rights movement became more than a series of isolated acts. It was in the years following that decision that the NAACP was formed and the efforts for racial equality became more coordinated.

It is often implied, if not suggested outright, that segregation only existed in the South, but it was a national fact of life, and attempts to change that were largely symbolic until Truman desegregated the troops 65 years ago today.

Skeptics may observe — and with justification — that Truman's order was mostly symbolic as well, given the fact that it was not treated as seriously as it should have been for years. And, as I say, there also are those who believe it was an act of genuine presidential courage. It may have been.

But I wouldn't necessarily label it a completely altruistic act. In the context of the times, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss political influences.

At the Democrats' convention in Philadelphia earlier that month, the progressive mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, gave a stirring speech that prompted the delegates to adopt a stronger stance on civil rights. Truman unhesitatingly endorsed the plank, but delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out in protest.

Prior to this date in 1948, there was a certain amount of concern among Democrats about the prospects for their national ticket — as well as rumors (which proved to be true) of a schism that might lead to a split in the form of a third–party challenge. In fact, from what I have read, the only Democrat who thought Truman had a chance to win was ... Truman himself.

In fact, there were two challenges to Truman in 1948 — aside from the challenge from Republican nominee Tom Dewey, who had lost to Franklin Roosevelt four years earlier. The challenge from the right came from South Carolina's Strom Thurmond. The challenge from the left came from Henry Wallace, Truman's predecessor in the vice presidency.

Recent Gallup polls still had Truman's approval lingering in the 30s. He may have felt he had little to lose — other than members of his base who might otherwise choose to stay home in November. That may have been at least part of his motivation for issuing the order.

He may also have felt that the current of history was moving in the direction of desegregation.

In many ways, it was a symbolic gesture. Although the order called for its provisions to be "put into effect as rapidly as possible," there was foot dragging in its implementation.

Because of that, many modern historians will say the modern civil rights movement began with 1954's unanimous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

I suppose that is hard to dispute. Segregation had been the virtually unchallenged law of the land since Plessy v. Ferguson, but Truman's order was the first real crack in segregation, and it set things up for Brown v. Board of Education to wedge it wide open — and, in the process, set up the ripple effect that transformed America from a segregated society to an integrated one.

That is the history of the American civil rights movement. I am often inclined to think that American segregation was destined to fall — like the Berlin wall.

But transformations of this magnitude are not historically inevitable, and even when the wheels are set in motion, they can be exceedingly slow to turn.

Truman got the wheels turning on this day in 1948.