July 26, 1948, was a red-letter day in American history. U.S. President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Truman declared, “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The president acted upon the wishes of many people, black and white, who believed that if African-Americans and other people of color served their country with honor, they should not be subjected to racial discrimination or violence.
Throughout his term in office, many African-American servicemen wrote the president about their harrowing experiences. Perhaps the most influential letter came from Isaac Woodard, Jr., a World War II veteran who, hours after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, was dragged off a bus and beaten until blind by police in Batesburg, South Carolina. Those stories had a profound effect on the president, who had grown up in a segregated Missouri town, and who had exhibited profound racism himself throughout his life. In response to Woodard’s blinding, Truman declared, “When a Mayor and City Marshal can take a negro Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out one of his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.” Truman’s bold action on civil rights was one factor leading to his upset defeat of Republican Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.
Just two years after Truman issued Executive Order 9981, North Korea invaded South Korea, putting the new policy to the test. Though the order had come from their Commander in Chief, many senior American military commanders simply ignored it. They had spent their entire careers training and fighting in a segregated army and weren’t going to integrate their units without a fight. So, even though the armed forces had officially been desegregated, artillery units like the 503rd Battalion remained all black.
Victor Burdette Spaulding recalled what it was like serving in one of the first mixed troops in basic training. One evening, he went out for a drink with three fellow soldiers, one of whom was black. The bartender refused to serve the entire group unless the black soldier left. Spaulding recalled, “Well, we figured we were all soldiers for the United States Army and we left the place and all four of us went [to another bar] where we all could drink together.” [Video: Victor Burdette Spaulding – Racial Segregation Issues] John Gragg recalled that even though Truman had ordered the military to be desegregated two years earlier, Army commanders dragged their feet. Congressman Charles Rangel reflected, “I can assure you by 1952, [desegregation] did not get down to the troops at all.” [Video: Congressman Charles Rangel – Segregation in the Armed Forces] Consequently, Gragg explained that in the Korean War, “You still had white units, and black units. When I went to Korea the only white I had in my unit was a lieutenant… he was the company commander… 90 percent of all black units were commanded by white officers. And most of those officers… couldn’t make it in white units,” so the Army placed them in charge of black units. [Video: John Gragg – Segregation in Korean War Units]
As Gragg and Rangel emphasized, the war was incredibly difficult for black soldiers. In 1950, American military commanders arrested fifty members of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment and falsely accused them of AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and cowardice in the presence of the enemy. Their hearings lasted as little as ten minutes. Thurgood Marshall, who went on to successfully argue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in front of the Supreme Court, and to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice himself, recalled, “[One of the men] produced two witnesses [stating that he had not gone AWOL]: a major in the Medical Corps and a lieutenant in the Nurse Corps, both of whom testified that he was in a base hospital the very day that he was supposed to be AWOL. And despite their testimony, he was convicted and given life imprisonment.”
When 300,000 Chinese troops stormed across the Yalu River on November 24, 1950, the 503rd Battalion found themselves directly in the line of fire. Many of them were killed, wounded or captured in the surprise attack. Daniel Minter spent three years of his life in a Chinese prison. He recalled of the experience, “The food was poor, the cold unbearable.” Chinese captors believed that African-Americans were particularly vulnerable to anti-American propaganda because of the discrimination they faced back home and in their units. So the Chinese subjected African-Americans to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist brainwashing more than their white counterparts.
Rangel, a young African-American member of the 503rd from New York City, found himself in the most unimaginable circumstances after the Chinese invasion. A high school dropout, Rangel enlisted in the Army in 1948 so that he could have a steady paycheck. The horrific Battle of Kunu-ri, from November 29 – December 1, 1950, is seared into his memory. [Video: Congressman Charles Rangel – Battle of KunuRi]
Piercing Manchurian winds howled over the craggy granite North Korean mountains, delivering the coldest weather the region had seen in over forty years. Freezing and miserable soldiers attempted to stay warm by huddling around fires in empty steel barrels. At night, the sweat on their feet froze solid. Gasoline had to be mixed with alcohol to prevent the fuel lines of trucks and other machinery from freezing. Then, the Chinese attacked. They encircled Rangel and the 503rd at Kunu-ri. During the day, American planes bombed Chinese foxholes relentlessly. At night, the firefights between Chinese and U.N. troops were unimaginable. Rangel recalls the nightmare, “It was hallucinating. You can’t describe tens of thousands of people with guns and bayonets and horns, screaming and yelling… and finding yourself helpless physically and believing that your life is over.”
Rangel went on to receive a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for leading forty of his fellow soldiers to safety at Kunu-ri. After he returned home, he went on to become one of the longest serving Congressmen in the House of Representatives. He later reflected, “It is hard to believe that out of those ashes a world international power could be formed, and that is good… I hope that the idea and dream of reunification can become reality during my lifetime.”
Thurgood Marshall recalled that General MacArthur, who believed that African-Americans were inferior to whites, was the greatest impediment to the Army’s desegregation in Korea. Things changed rapidly as soon as Truman fired him in 1951. General Matthew Ridgeway took command of UN forces and actively promoted the desegregation of all units. So, though African-American troops encountered terrible racism, discrimination and violence during the Korean War, things had begun to change by the end of hostilities in 1953. The struggle for military integration in Korea mirrored similar struggles on the home front. Together, those struggles paved the way toward the integration of American society as a whole.