On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 abolishing discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the United States Armed Forces. This action eventually resulted in the desegregation of the United States military. Historians praise Truman for his foresight but generally ignore that state action that preceded and drove this change.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This 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.
African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans, had already made incredible contributions to the United States military prior to 1948. The general public has become increasingly aware of these achievements through popular films such as “The Tuskegee Airmen.” Likewise, Americans are becoming familiar with the history of the Navajo Code Talkers, the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the 65th Infantry “Borinqueneers.” Regardless of one’s views about America’s foreign policy, the United States Military is an organization where people of any background can be judged by their individual merits.
Much modern scholarship has celebrated the role of this “stroke of the pen” executive order in contrast with the more gradual pace of legislative and judicial action. Other scholars have focused on the role of civil rights groups such as the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation.
What is truly remarkable is the extent to which historians have ignored the real story surrounding the events leading up to Executive Order 9981. It is a story that does not fit comfortably within the traditional narrative about the Tenth Amendment as an ally of Jim Crow. Much like when the Northern States used nullification to reject Fugitive Slave Laws prior to the Civil War, this forgotten historical drama illustrates how States can use the Tenth Amendment to fight federally-mandated racism. This forgotten story does not begin in the South, the Supreme Court, or the White House; it begins in the armories of the New Jersey Army National Guard.
In 1947 New Jersey approved a new Constitution which included the following language:
“No qualified person shall be denied any civil or military right, nor be discriminated against in exercise of any civil or military right, nor be segregated in the militia or in the public schools because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”
The federal National Guard Bureau had recently organized a new unit in New Jersey, the 372nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery group entirely of black soldiers. Clearly, this new unit was illegal under the New Jersey Constitution.
The New Jersey Military Affairs Committee, New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll, as well as the commanding and adjutant generals of the New Jersey National Guard all pushed back against the federal government.
On Oct. 24, 1947, Gov. Driscoll announced the new unit would not be composed on the basis of race and that any segregated armories would be integrated immediately.
On Dec. 3, 1947, Driscoll stated, “All of our citizens must be given the opportunity to enlist in the New Jersey units of the National Guard and participate in any of its activities for which each individual is considered qualified.”
This was in direct violation of the official War Department policy of the time that “negro manpower will be employed in negro regiments or groups, battalions or squadrons, troops or batteries.”
Over the next several months Driscoll, along with generals from the New Jersey National Guard, engaged in a fascinating back and forth with the National Guard Bureau, Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, and the Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall.
Noteworthy is the exchange between Driscoll and Royall in January and February of 1948.
“Your telegram which I have just received does not suffice for my wire to Secretary of Defense,” said Driscoll. “It will be necessary for any National Guard units placed under the supervision of New Jersey authority to comply fully with both the spirit and the letter of our constitution.”
It was only under increasing pressure from New Jersey that President Truman announced he had “instructed the Secretary of Defense to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible,” on Feb. 2, 1948.
On Feb. 7, Royall replied to Gov. Driscoll.
“I recognize the importance to a sovereign state of a constitutional provision such as yours, and I have determined that for the present, Army militia units of New Jersey, if otherwise qualified, will not be denied Federal recognition on the ground of non-segregation.”
The New Jersey Department of Defense published General Order Number 4 on Feb. 12, 1948, stating: “no qualified person shall be denied any military rights, nor be discriminated against in exercise of any military rights, nor be segregated in the militia because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.”
On March 17, 1948, the newly created United States Air Force also formally gave in to the New Jersey Constitution’s anti-discrimination provisions.
Gov. Driscoll later reflected on the historical significance of these first federally recognized military units saying, “That this provision in our basic charter is working smoothly in the National Guard throughout the State, is due entirely to the intelligent understanding of the problem on the part of all our citizens, regardless of color.”
Several more months would pass until President Truman finally signed the executive order destined to become remembered by history books and newspaper editorialists as a watershed moment for racial equality. The real history is more complex and centered around the constitution of a small state standing alone against the power of the federal government.[i]
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[i] New Jersey’s original Constitution in 1776 was also noteworthy. This Constitution made New Jersey the only State to grant unmarried women and property-owning African-Americans the right to vote, although these provisions were eventually rescinded by 1807.
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