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Author highlights role of U.S. military in civil rights

| Monday, November 22, 2021

Notre Dame’s Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted author Rawn James Jr. on Friday to speak on “The Military and Civil Rights.” James, who also currently a senior civilian attorney for the Department of the Navy, delved into the U.S. military’s history from a racial lens, as well as its journey to desegregation.

The event is part of the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” weekly online lecture series, which seeks to foster understanding of racial justice for its audience. Dory Mitros Durham, the associate director of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, moderated the discussion with James.

As Durham guided the conversation, chronologically following the role of race in the military since its inception, James stressed the role of “necessity” with military decisions regarding race.

“[In times of war,] necessity takes over,” he said. “Necessity demands progress.”

The Revolutionary War highlighted themes that would pervade in the new U.S. military for centuries, he said. James explained how, although the 1775 Continental Congress banned Black people from serving in the military, the Continental Army eventually could no longer afford to exclude individuals as the war dragged on.

“General George Washington needed men in his army,” he said. “So, as casualties began to mount, the Continental Army began to allow African Americans to fight.”

After the war, however, another theme in military history arose: the progress in inclusion that Black soldiers experienced during wartime was stripped away as the nation returned to peace. The issue, James said, was that those in power “truly saw great danger in teaching Black men how to fight with arms.”

However, the Navy remained the most integrated force at this time, James said.

“Sailing was a pretty rough job that most folks — if they had any alternative didn’t want to do,” he said. “So, the Navy allowed Black sailors.”

This integration, James noted, disappeared almost 150 years later with the adoption of the steam engine. At this time, African Americans on ships mainly took service roles instead, such as cooking or cleaning.

James explained that President Abraham Lincoln originally did not want to include African American soldiers in the Civil War because he worried about losing weapons to the Confederates. But as it happened in the Revolutionary War, circumstances changed in the Civil War.

“Lincoln finds himself in the position of needing young men to go and fight on behalf of the Union,” he said.

African American leaders such as Frederick Douglas believed that in fighting the war, Black men “would prove their mettle, show that they can fight and then finally receive the rights of citizenship,” James said.

Unfortunately, as the period of Reconstruction gave way to southern states’ wishes to enforce for themselves the amendments of the post-Civil War period, Jim Crow was established.

“They were establishing Jim Crow through sadistic violence,” James said. “That is the only way you can establish such a system.”

In World War I, “the Black intelligentsia,” such as activist W.E.B. Dubois, again “exhorted Black men to do their duty and sign up,” James said. When they joined, however, it was intensely segregated, James said, and “many commanders did not even call Black Americans, ‘Americans’.”

James acknowledged that, despite serious inequality, there still was an educated “stratosphere” of Black Americans. Many Black students from this group, such as those at Howard University, played key roles in becoming the first Black officers in the Army during World War I.

For these officers, however, service often ended in disappointment.

“They were commissioned officers, but the Army did not require other soldiers or officers to treat them as officers,” James said.

James also spoke about was the Houston mutiny of 1917 at Camp Logan, what he called one of the most tragic events of race relations in American history.

The incident began with an African American soldier being arrested for interfering in the arrest of a Black woman. It escalated from unfounded rumors that led to a mutinous mob of over 100 armed, Black soldiers killing 11 civilians and five policemen in Houston.

It was a multi-pronged, horrific tragedy, James explained. It was an atrocity on a massive scale, but also a “painful incident in the Black community,” he said, as it shook up a sense of self-image and pride.

When World War I ended and soldiers returned home, the country treated Black soldiers poorly.

“It appeared that the entire nation resented Black soldiers for having served in the military at all,” James said. “African Americans were collectively shocked at the treatment.”

This shock, this unrest, led to James’ thesis that “what is now called the Civil Rights Movement began as the struggle to desegregate America’s military.”

Much of the harsh treatment African Americans received was due to the fact they had to serve in segregated units in the military, James said.

“By the time World War II is on the horizon, Franklin Roosevelt really has a problem with Black Americans telling him that they’re not going to serve in a segregated military again,” he said.

This led to the Double V campaign of World War II: the push of African Americans for victory in the war abroad as well as victory in the fight for rights at home. It spread throughout African American society and scared many white Americans.

“It was controversial, but it was widespread,” James said.

James then moved ahead to Harry Truman’s executive order to finally desegregate the military in 1948.

Truman, a southerner and a war veteran, was at the same time elected president with the key support of African American community. James said Truman’s executive order was meant “in part to do right, to do something good, and also to do something that could help him politically.”

The executive order didn’t effectively desegregate the military, James explained. But with the onset of the Korean War in 1950 increasing the military’s need for troops, it was impractical for the military to stay segregated.

“So, necessity again brought the fruits of the 1948 executive order to bear,” James said.

In its history, James said he believes the military has been a leader in the progress of civil rights. Much of their actions, he explained, were “in part because of necessity, but for others, it was something they saw as the being the right thing to do.”

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