On Friday, the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights in Notre Dame welcomed author Rawn James Jr. to speak on “Military and Civil Rights.” James, who is also currently senior civilian attorney for the Department of the Navy, explored the history of the U.S. military from a racial perspective, as well as its journey to desegregation.
The event is part of the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” weekly online lecture series, which aims to promote understanding of racial justice for its audience. Dory Mitros Durham, 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 emphasized the role of “necessity” in military decisions regarding race.
“[In times of war,] necessity takes precedence, ”he said. “Necessity demands progress.”
The Revolutionary War brought to light themes that will permeate the new US military for centuries, he said. James explained how, although the Continental Congress of 1775 banned black people from serving in the military, the Continental Army ultimately could no longer afford to exclude individuals as the war dragged on.
“General George Washington needed men in his army,” he said. “So, as the casualties started to increase, the Continental Army began to allow African Americans to fight.”
After the war, however, another theme of military history arose: the advances in inclusion that black soldiers experienced in wartime were suppressed when the nation returned to peace. The problem, James said, was that those in power “really saw a great danger in teaching black men how to fight with guns.”
However, the Navy remained the most integrated force during this time, James said.
“Sailing was a pretty tough job that most people – if they had an alternative didn’t want to do,” he said. “So the Navy cleared the black sailors. “
This integration, James noted, disappeared almost 150 years later with the adoption of the steam engine. At that time, African Americans on ships primarily performed service roles, 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 feared losing weapons to the Confederates. But as happened during the War of Independence, circumstances changed during 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 courage, show that they can fight and finally enjoy the rights of citizenship,” said James.
Sadly, as the Reconstruction period gave way to the wishes of the southern states to impose the post-Civil War changes themselves, Jim Crow was created.
“They were establishing Jim Crow through sadistic violence,” James said. “This is the only way to establish such a system.”
During World War I, the “black intelligentsia” like activist WEB Dubois again “urged black men to do their duty and register,” James said. When they joined, however, there was intense segregation, James said, and “many commanders didn’t even call black Americans ‘Americans.’
James recognized that, despite serious inequalities, there still existed an educated “stratosphere” of black Americans. Many black students in this group, such as those at Howard University, played key roles in becoming the first black officers in the military during WWI.
For these officers, however, service often ended in disappointment.
“They were commissioned officers, but the military did not require other soldiers or officers to treat them as officers,” James said.
James also spoke about the Houston Mutiny in 1917 at Camp Logan, what he called one of the most tragic race relations events in American history.
The incident began with the arrest of an African-American soldier for interfering in the arrest of a black woman. It escalated into unfounded rumors which led to a mutiny of more than 100 armed black soldiers killing 11 civilians and five police officers in Houston.
It was a horrific, multi-faceted tragedy, explained James. It was a large-scale atrocity, but also a “painful incident in the black community,” he said, as it shook a sense of self-esteem and pride.
When World War I ended and the soldiers returned home, the country treated black soldiers badly.
“It turned out that the whole nation resented black soldiers for serving in the military,” James said. “African Americans were collectively shocked at the treatment.”
This shock, this turmoil, led to James’ thesis that “what is now called the civil rights movement began as the struggle to desegregate the US military.”
Much of the harsh treatment African Americans received was due to having to serve in separate units of the military, James said.
“As World War II approaches on the horizon, Franklin Roosevelt really has a problem with black Americans telling him they are no longer going to serve in a separate army,” he said.
This led to the Double V campaign of WWII: African Americans’ push for victory in the war abroad as well as victory in the struggle for rights at home. It spread throughout African American society and frightened many white Americans.
“It was controversial, but it was widespread,” James said.
James then went ahead with Harry Truman’s decree to finally desegregate the army in 1948.
Truman, a southerner and veteran, was simultaneously elected president with key support from the African American community. James said Truman’s decree was “partly to do good, to do something right, and also to do something that could help him politically.”
The executive order did not effectively desegregate the military, explained James. But with the onset of the Korean War in 1950, increasing the need for army troops, it was impossible for the military to stay separate.
“So necessity once again bore fruit with the 1948 decree,” said James.
In his story, James said he believes the military has been a leader in the advancement of civil rights. Much of their actions, he explained, were “partly out of necessity, but for others it was something they saw as the right thing to do.”