The Militarys Secret War Against Racism
JULY 01, 1990 by LEE NICHOLS
Mr. Nichols is a retired Voice of America broadcaster.
Editors’ Note: The following is an account, condensed from the author’s unpublished memoirs, of how he broke through the armed forces’ curtain of silence on its racial integration drive in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The following is an account, condensed from the author’s unpublished memoirs, of how he broke through the armed forces’ curtain of silence on its racial integration drive in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
I was working as a rewrite man on the United Press night desk in Washington, D.C., in 1952 when I got wind that something was going on about the military establishment’s racially segregated forces. I thought that there was racial progress in the U.S. in general that had not been fully reported and that might make a magazine article. The head of Collier’s magazine’s Washington bureau expressed interest in the military aspect of that picture and asked me to submit an outline of an article.
At that point I didn’t have enough information to write even an outline, let alone an article. But I was encouraged to begin digging by James C. Evans, the civilian assistant for racial affairs to the Secretary of Defense. Evans, a black man, was deeply involved in what was taking place within the military in regard to race but his mouth was sealed. All he could do was give me a “wink and a nod” to goad me into searching.
With the assistance of the Army’s chief of public relations, who apparently thought the story had to come out sooner or later and that I seemed to be a responsible reporter, I began seeking information at the Pentagon but I was getting nowhere fast. Finally a major in the Army personnel division suggested that I visit the Army’s training base at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He refused to tell me why I should visit Fort Jackson or what I would find there.
My interest was piqued. Having nothing to lose, I took a week off from my job and drove to Fort Jackson, on the outskirts of Columbia, the South Carolina capital. I was welcomed by the public affairs officer at the base, who had been notified of my coming, and immediately learned that Fort Jackson had been racially integrated for the past two years!
Few people reading this today can realize what that piece of information meant to me at that time, in the summer of 1952. As far as the public knew, the Army—and Navy and Air Force—was still racially segregated as it had been for over a century. No hints of any moves toward ending this segregation had filtered into the public’s awareness. Yet here, adjacent to a major Southern city in full view of anybody who looked, was a fully integrated training base, functioning efficiently without fuss or fanfare.
At Fort Jackson I learned how this racial integration had come about. The base had been beefed up as a major infantry training center shortly before America’s entry into the Korean War and had received a substantial influx of black soldiers. It would have required two complete training organizations to handle what would have amounted to two separate Army groups. The commander of Fort Jackson, Brigadier General Frank McConnell, told me he had requested permission to put the black and white soldiers together. His request was bucked up to a certain level from whence the word carne saying, in effect, “Don’t ask.” McCounell took this to mean, “Go ahead but don’t say anything.”
McConnell, realizing the possibility of a public outcry if his move made headlines in the local press, told me he had met with the editors of Columbia’s two daily newspapers. He explained what he planned to do and asked them, as a patriotic service, not to publicize the action unless they were forced to. The editors agreed. Their newspapers maintained silence. Fort Jackson was integrated quietly, smoothly, with a minimum of trouble. I was told this, and saw with my own eyes the black and white soldiers eating, sleeping, and training side by side. There had been and were continuing problems with on-base social clubs and off-base activities—problems that reflected longstanding social mores and that continued for years after basic integration had occurred.
From Fort Jackson I drove to Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, another Army training base where I found much the same racially integrated situation; the same at the Marine Corps training school at Quantico, Virginia; and, to my growing excitement, a major degree of racial integration in the Navy. The latter was pointed out to me at the huge Norfolk, Virginia, naval base by a young Southern-born white Navy public relations officer who was obviously proud of what the Navy was doing.
The Freeman Breaks the Story
Returning to Washington, I wrote an outline for an article and submitted it to Collier’s Washington office. To the chagrin of the man who had encouraged me, Collier’s New York headquarters turned down the proposed article. I succeeded in placing the article with The Freeman (April 6,1953); it was later reprinted by Reader’s Digest.
Next came my book. Jim Evans at the Pentagon and Nell MacNeil, a colleague at United Press, urged me to expand my article into a book. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect, unable to contemplate it. MacNeil took me to visit his father, Neff MacNeil Sr., a retired editor of The New York Times, at their home in Southampton, Long Island.
I told the father what I had discovered. The elder MacNeil, a man of Scottish ancestry born in Nova Scotia, told me I must write a book about it; I owed it to the American people. He recalled to me his being in the South and seeing a group of black school children waiting for a bus to their all-black school, then watching a bus filled with white children passing swiftly by. With tears in his eyes, he told me this incident had filled him with shame for America; the story I had to tell would purge some of that shame.
MacNeil Sr. found me a literary agent who, after a couple of tries, persuaded Random House to publish my book, as yet unwritten. The agent sold it by virtue of an outline and three sample chapters. He also showed Random House a reprint of my Freeman article which had been placed in the Congressional Record by Senator Hubert Humphrey.
I shudder to remember what it cost me to write that book. Random House had given me a contract calling for a finished manuscript in slightly under three months. I hadn’t finished my research and took time to visit Air Force bases in Illinois, Mississippi, and Texas. I visited the Pentagon several times to check facts. And I was working full-time on the UP night desk, so I had to write late at night into the early morning and on weekends, at a frantic pace.
I didn’t make the deadline but Random House scheduled the book for publication on February 15, 1954. It was entitled Breakthrough on the Color Front, a title I had put at the top of my paper when I started writing, assuming we would work out a more suitable name later. There was no later. When I finally raised the question, a senior editor at Random House looked surprised. “What’s wrong with the title?” he asked. It stayed.
The book didn’t sell many copies but it was a “critical success.” The New York Times gave the whole of page three of its Sunday book review section to a highly favorable review by the noted military historian S. L. A. Marshall. The New York Herald-Tribune carried an equally laudatory review by Roy Wilkins, then administrator and later head of the NAACP, the day before publication. It was widely reviewed by newspapers and magazines all over the country, South as well as North. Time magazine gave it a full page, with pictures, in its news pages. A friend in Time’s Washington bureau told me it had not been placed in the book review section because it was a major piece of news of which Time had been ignorant.
Senator Humphrey gave Random House a quote for the cover saying the book recorded “the first truly effective step that has been made in implementing the Emancipation Proclamation.” Jim Evans at the Pentagon offered a comment for the cover that the book was “a contribution to national defense through solidarity.”
The Brown Decision
Evans told me that the previous year, 1953, two justices of the Supreme Court had requested and received from him copies of the manuscript of the book, still incomplete, while the Court was considering the school desegregation issue (Brown vs. Board of Education). He told me one of the requesters was Chief Justice Vinson, who died before the Court reached its verdict. He would not tell me the name of the other justice.
I have no way of knowing whether the book had any influence on the Court’s May 1954 ruling that public school segregation was unconstitutional, I assume the Court, in pondering the issue, was concerned, among other things, about the impact such a ruling might have on America’s social structure; and my book recorded, in explicit detail, the lack of adverse effects resulting from the military’s integration program.
In 1955, the Supreme Court issued a second ruling implementing its 1954 decision. In its “friend of the court” brief to the high court, the U.S. Department of Justice cited my book by name as evidence that public school desegregation would be acceptable to the American public.
In gathering material for my book, I had found that the military establishment had wrapped a tight curtain of secrecy around its program of racial integration. Why was such a bold human rights initiative hidden from public view? The reasoning was explained to me by officials involved, and confirmed by key Southern members of Congress: if the integration program had become known while it was in progress, Southerners in Congress would have been virtually forced to publicly denounce it, which could have had a devastating effect on the whole effort.
On the other hand the military, to a general, defended the integration program in secret meetings with key Congressmen as being done solely on the basis of military efficiency. There was little doubt that this was the case: history had shown that all-black troops on the whole, with notable exceptions, had been unreliable—largely due to the existence of segregation which made them, and made them feel like, second-class citizens, usually relegated to labor tasks and jobs as Navy stewards, under the often-prejudiced command of white officers.
Although military efficiency was given as the official reason for the military’s push to integration, as I dug deeper I found more profound motives among many officers and civilian defense officials. Probably the first move toward racial integration in the Navy was sparked during World War II by a young Navy lieutenant, Christopher Smith Sargent, son of an Episcopal minister, assigned to Navy headquarters in Washington. Sargent prodded the Navy into setting up its first wholly integrated seagoing vessels in this century—a destroyer escort and a submarine chaser. The year before this historic step successfully took place, young Sargent delivered a sermon at All Souls’ Memorial Church in Washington in which he said: “Few can be heroes, doing deeds of great import . . . . Each Christian act we do, each high-minded thought we go by, will add a bit to the Christian way.”
Presiding over the Air Force’s racial integration program were two men: the nation’s first Air Force Secretary, Stuart Symington, son of an Amherst College professor who grew up in a home free from racial bias where help for blacks was stressed; and Symington’s personnel chief, Lieutenant General Idwal S. Edwards, son of a Baptist minister and born in a town called Freedom, New York.
President Truman’s executive order of 1948, calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity” in the armed forces, played a major role in pushing to completion the already-begun integration effort. It was well known that Truman took the Bible and the Constitution literally in his belief in the equality of races. In the summer of 1953, when I was working on my book, I asked him in a personal interview what he thought of the successful military integration.
Truman replied, “It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to America.”