I was recently reading a book that documents 178 years of America's history through newspaper articles, and was riveted by a few pieces about the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. The parallels to today's fight to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military are evident.
The intensity of resistance to change was virulent: One newspaper article recounted how it took nearly a decade to move the White House to act on dismantling the segregated military. It came not because President Harry S Truman - who wound up issuing an executive order to integrate the military - or his predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to do so. Behind the scenes, they were getting pressure and outright threats to get the deed done.
The person who moved the needle was A. Philip Randolph (with aid, some say prompting, from his mentee Bayard Rustin), a civil rights leader who founded the trade union Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He would later become vice president of the powerful labor union, the AFL-CIO.
In 1941, Randolph met with Roosevelt and warned that 100,000 blacks would march on Washington if Roosevelt didn't end discrimination in defense industries and military service. Roosevelt tried to dissuade Randolph but couldn't and capitulated, but only on part of Randolph's demand: He issued Executive Order No. 8802 establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee to end discrimination in defense industries.
Randolph called off the march but did not give up on integrating the U.S. military. After Truman became president and made tackling civil rights a goal, Randolph met with him on March 22, 1948, and threatened to initiate a mass civil disobedience campaign. One newspaper quoted him as saying: "I personally pledge to openly counsel, aid and abet youth, both white and colored, to quarantine any Jim Crow conscription. I call upon all to join this civil disobedience ... and to recruit their younger brothers in organized refusal to register and be drafted."
Congress and the White House tried to deter him with warnings of "indictments for treason and very serious repercussions." Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover threatened to expose him as a homosexual (no evidence confirms that sexual orientation, though Rustin was openly gay and a gay activist for much of his life). But Randolph remained adamant. He formed the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation on June 26, 1948. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order No. 9981 calling for "equal treatment" of all who joined the military and establishing a committee to end discrimination. One newspaper article noted that the order "met bitter opposition, not only from Southern Dixiecrats, but from the armed services as well, including Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley."
By 1949, the Navy and Air Force were pursuing policies to fully integrate, with officials from each publicly supporting the end of segregation. Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall (who's from Goldsboro) argued in favor of maintaining segregation.
The Army continued to foot-drag until large numbers of white casualties in Korea made segregated units untenable. By 1953, most black soldiers were serving in integrated units.
It's now been 17 years since the "don't ask, don't tell" law went into effect, prohibiting homosexuals from revealing their sexual orientation while serving in the military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have said the law should be repealed. A poll of troops released Nov. 30 found that more than two-thirds said they would not object to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform.
But as in 1948, service commanders are dragging their feet. Last week, commanders of the Army, Air Force and Marines appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee arguing against homosexuals serving openly. Just as Omar Bradley's view held no sway in 1948, these views should hold none today.
Discrimination is wrong. Gays and lesbians are serving in the military with honor and distinction, and should not have to hide who they are.
Congress, noted one news article, "repeatedly failed to end segregation in the armed forces." Truman was forced to do so by fiat. Obama should consider his own decree. Gates thinks a judicial fiat awaits now that courts have found "don't ask, don't tell" violates the rights of homosexuals, resulting in a hasty, ill-conceived change. Oral arguments on appeal of the court rulings are set for February.
This doesn't need to return to the courts. The Senate vote failed Thursday, but Congress still has a chance to do the right thing and end "don't ask, don't tell." Learn from history. Allow homosexuals to serve openly.