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For black veterans, Truman's order was a step in a long fight for equality

Service medals and awards received by Charles Felder during his time in the armed forces. He joined the Marines at 17 in 1953.

MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST

By DENEEN L. BROWN | The Washington Post | Published: July 27, 2018

Two years before President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the armed forces, a black World War II veteran in uniform was pulled from a bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, and severely beaten by a police chief violently swinging a nightstick.

Isaac Woodard, who was accused of talking back to the bus driver, lost consciousness in the assault and was permanently blinded.

"Negro veterans that fought in this war . . . don't realize that the real battle has just begun in America," Woodard, who was attacked Feb. 12, 1946, hours after he had been honorably discharged, told the Chicago Defender newspaper.

Months later, two black veterans and their wives were forced out of a car near Monroe, Georgia, tied to trees and executed by a white mob. Their skulls were cracked, and their bodies were riddled with more than 60 bullets.

At the White House, Truman was disturbed by news of the increasing attacks on black veterans across the country. Near the end of World War II, hundreds of black veterans returning home from war were assaulted and lynched — some simply for wearing uniforms.

"My very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten," Truman said, according to papers at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Truman ordered the FBI to investigate the lynchings and appointed the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which would issue a revolutionary report in October 1947. It condemned segregation, proposed anti-lynching laws and urged action "to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed or national origin in all branches of the Armed Services."

On July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, declaring that the 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."

The order was met with immediate resistance. Full integration of the armed forces would not happen until the Korean War, when the need for troops on the ground trumped discrimination based on color.

Seventy years after Truman's executive order, black veterans say the memories of racism and discrimination in the armed forces still sting. The transition to the military's full integration would prove as difficult as integration in the rest of society.

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Retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton Jr., 92, who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, remembers the day the order was issued.

"Commanders were directed to read the order to their personnel," Becton said in an interview in Fairfax, Virginia. "I was on reserve duty at Aberdeen Proving Ground when the post commander read the order, and then he said, 'As long as I am the commander here, there will be no change.' "

Becton was surprised by the defiance. "I didn't believe what I heard. This was the commander in chief saying this is what it's going to be. But here was a commander saying nothing would change." Black soldiers were labeled with stereotypes, Becton recalled. "They thought black soldiers couldn't fight — that they were not trustworthy and had no leadership skills."

Black troops have fought with valor in every war since the American Revolution. Still, Becton said that during World War II, they were treated unfairly by U.S. forces and even their prisoners of war.

"During my training in 1944, when I was in an all-black unit at MacDill Army Airfield," near Tampa, Becton recalled, "some of the service areas were run by Italian prisoners of war. . . . I could walk into the shoe repair, and even though I had been the first in line, I would be the last person served because the fellow behind the counter, although he was a POW, he was white."

A year after Truman's order, Becton led a platoon in a segregated 3rd Battalion "in the otherwise all-white 9th Infantry Regiment. That's what passed for Army integration in 1949," according to the Outpost, a column in the Army magazine.

On June 25, 1950, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur "ordered his ill-equipped, understrength occupation forces to deploy and try to stop the North Korean onslaught, it did not go well." MacArthur requested reinforcements, and Becton's platoon responded. "MacArthur needed troops," according to the Outpost. "He didn't ask their skin color."

Becton would go on to earn the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts in Korea.

"When our regiment lost men and needed replacements, it didn't matter if the new soldiers were black or white," Becton said. "Our colonel said to put them where they were needed, and this led to the integration of the 9th Infantry Regiment. . . . Whatever their color/complexion had nothing to do with how well they could fight."

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When Sam Graham, who was born in Cottonwood, Alabama, was growing up in the segregated South, he read stories in black newspapers about the lynchings and attacks of black veterans returning from World War II.

"There were so many terrible, terrible things that happened to black veterans in those days," said Graham, now 87, a retired Army sergeant. "But what could you do about it? There was nothing you could do about it. That's just what it was like back then."

Graham served in the Army from 1948 to 1954. "I got out, but I couldn't find a job," he said. So he rejoined that same year, continuing to serve until 1968.

Graham felt as though Truman's order had no immediate effect on his time in the service, where he constantly faced racism.

"Mr. Truman, he took a stand, and he meant well," Graham said. "But it was the commanders — it was up to them, and they fought it tooth and nail."

Graham remembers being called names by white soldiers. "There were always remarks made," Graham said. "But what are you going to do? I was used to it."

For black soldiers, racism was rampant. "The things we had to overcome as black soldiers in a white Army," he said. "You could either adjust to it or fight and wind up in the stockade."

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Five years after Truman's executive order, Charles Felder joined the Marines at 17. Felder grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, where he saw racism that still makes him cringe.

Felder said that his uncle, a World War II veteran, tried to talk him out of joining the military.

"He hated the military," Felder said. "He was a mechanic. He told me about an incident in Italy. They got up in the mountains in the Alps. The trucks constantly ran out of gas. They attached 55-gallon cans of gasoline to the backs of the black soldiers. That is the way they made it up the mountains."

In 1954, Felder was sent to Korea, where he was assigned to the 1st Marine Division. One incident is seared in his mind.

"When we got to a forward position, my rifle was missing," Felder recalled, sitting in the community room of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington. "It could have happened to any Marine. But he laid this punishment on me. He told me he did not ever want to see me without my weapon. He made a sling for the weapon."

Felder was required to wear the weapon day and night. "He would come into the tent at night and make sure that weapon was with me. At the dining hall, I would take the weapon and put it on my lap. He would walk up and say, 'Felder, where does the weapon belong?' "

" 'On my back,' " Felder replied. "He just pushed it. This officer was a white Southerner."

Another incident occurred on a weekend. "I'll never forget this," Felder recalled. "We had had a few. I might have had more than I could handle. I went to my bunk. I heard the [noncommissioned officers] in the area. They were talking. Before I could get to sleep, I heard somebody say, 'That's a god---- n----- jet pilot right there.' "

Felder jumped up. "It got to me. I said, 'What did you say?' "

The Marine denied it. "My memory is not where it should be," Felder said. "But I will never forget that."
 

Retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, Jr., awarded two Purple Hearts in Korea, poses for a photo in Fort Belvoir, Va. on July 6, 2018.
MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

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