African Americans in the military

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Daniel Liggins
  • 319th Communications Squadron commander
Black History Month is a time to reflect on the numerous accomplishments African Americans have made to our nation. African Americans have been integral to the success and continued prosperity of the United States and have made positive contributions to every aspect of American life. As a member of the U.S. Air Force, I'd like to focus on the contributions African Americans have made to our military.

The history of African Americans in the military is a microcosm of society at large; blacks had to endure the same institutional racism and legal segregation that plagued the rest of the country during its darkest hours. Yet, the military was one of the first places where equality of the races was accepted and acted upon. Despite rejection and outright hostility directed at African Americans who attempted to serve in the Armed Forces, they proved to be among the nation's most patriotic citizens, making great contributions to every war in American history.

Prior to the Civil War, colonial legislatures excluded blacks from armed service except during military conflict. The main reasons for the exclusion were fear of slave insurrections and the complicated issue of how slave owners should be compensated, since blacks were considered private property. When blacks were allowed to enlist, they eagerly joined the ranks, even though it was apparent the government would terminate their services once the conflict ended. They joined the fight hoping that military service would elevate their status and prove that they deserved equality alongside white Americans. During this period, African Americans fought bravely in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. Unfortunately for these brave men, their service before the Civil War failed to elevate their status or that of other blacks and they remained barred from military service.

During the Civil War, African Americans made contributions while serving both the Union and the Confederacy. Why would African Americans serve the Confederacy, which believed that they should remain enslaved? It was for the same reason they served the Union -- Patriotism and the hope that in proving their loyalty they would receive better treatment and equality. Many historians note that black servicemen were instrumental in enabling the Union to successfully carry out its plan and win the war. They served honorably in spite of pay discrimination, death threats from white soldiers within their own ranks, inferior training and weapons, little medical care and outright physical abuse.

Following the Civil War, African Americans were instrumental in settling the western United States. Of particular distinction were the "Buffalo Soldiers," a name that Native Americans bestowed upon black soldiers because of their valor in battle. The Buffalo Soldiers served continuously on the western frontier from their inception in 1866 until the Spanish-American War in 1898. These all-black regiments helped erase negative perceptions surrounding the ability of African Americans to serve; they were described as outstanding in their discipline, patience and morale.

In the 50 years following the Civil War, African Americans demonstrated incomparable ability as soldiers in a variety of harsh environments and in the face of numerous adversities. Unfortunately, although black servicemen proved their worthiness time and again, discrimination against them only increased, reflecting attitudes in civilian society at the time.

In 1917, at the onset of World War I, African Americans quickly "closed ranks" to help defend freedom and democracy in Europe. Black leaders, after obtaining promises by government officials of improved racial conditions after the war, rallied young African Americans to enlist in the Army and Navy, and they happily obliged. Sadly, despite their sacrifice, contributions and continued record of bravery, their status changed little. With racism still prevalent throughout American society, blacks had little chance of increased opportunity in the Armed Forces. African Americans were able to gain ground only with the slow dissolution of racism in mainstream society and the increased need for servicemembers at the start of World War II.

When the US entered World War II in 1941, the Armed Forces' need for manpower became critical. World War II proved to be a watershed in race relations within the military. All branches made significant advances in the treatment of black servicemembers; they began integrating training facilities and commissioning black officers. It was the first time the Navy or Coast Guard commissioned African American officers, the first time the Marine Corps officially accepted blacks and the first time African Americans received command of war vessels. Throughout the postwar period, blacks fought with even greater determination to ensure the military continued its movement toward racial equality.

The contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen were noteworthy during this time period. Prior to 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the military. Civil rights organizations exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all-black pursuit squadron in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941. Under the "Tuskegee Experiment", African Americans were trained to fly and maintain aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintainers and support staff. During the war, they overcame intense racism and segregation to become some of the world's most respected combat aviators. Their remarkable achievements paved the way for full integration in the U.S. military.

Following World War II, President Harry Truman signed an executive order which mandated equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services, regardless of color. The year was 1948, 16 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. This executive order ensured that integration was fully realized during and after the Korean War of 1950-53.

Today, the military remains at the forefront of racial equality in the United States. African-Americans now occupy one-third of all positions in the military and are positive role models for young people to follow. There have been more than 250 African American general officers in the Armed Services, including seven 4-star generals. An African American has served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military's highest position.

I salute those African Americans from the past who courageously paved the way for an equal opportunity military by overcoming slavery, segregation and institutional racism. These great Americans helped defend our nation and shape the military that we serve in today.