Most who have served in the armed forces have at least one common conviction: They love the United States of America. They take the words in our founding documents very seriously, and truly believe ours is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Thus it is not surprising that so many veterans were involved in securing civil rights for all Americans. This is a discussion of but a few of those veterans.
Blacks must have learned a huge lesson after returning from serving during World War I. W.E.B. du Bois, sociologist, teacher and activist of the early 20th century, was a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, when it was founded in 1910. He viewed World War I as an opportunity for black Americans to demonstrate their loyalty to their country and urged them to close ranks with white America. Some 380,000 African-Americans served in that war. But after the war, blacks faced increased racial violence rather than the gratitude they expected.
Almost 1,000,000 blacks served during World War II. While defeating Nazi persecution in the war, they realized the hypocrisy of segregation in the U.S. One small incident during the war was telling. A group of black soldiers were required to eat their meal out of the back window of a train. Through the window, they observed Italian prisoners of war sitting inside, chatting with the staff while enjoying their lunch. African-American servicemen gained awareness that their lives at home could be much improved. They decided to defeat tyranny at home as well as in other countries.
Blacks flexed their collective muscles and got the attention of government officials who joined in the quest for civil rights. Executive orders, judicial decisions and legislative acts by other veterans facilitated enormous change.
Blacks who served fought for their rights at home
Sometimes small individual acts of defiance by veterans added up against Jim Crow in a big way.
Before he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus in Colleen, Texas. He faced a courts martial and was found not guilty.
Corporal Marguerite Nicholson was dragged off a railroad coach and arrested in Hamlet, North Carolina after she refused to move to a segregated section when the train crossed into the South. The Hamlet chief of police beat the 120-pound woman and charged her with violating a local ordinance. She spent two days in jail and was required to pay a fine and court costs.
Wilson Head, a World War II veteran, undertook his own personal freedom ride from Atlanta to Washington in 1946 on a Greyhound bus. He insisted on sitting in the front of the bus, braving angry drivers and enraged passengers. He somehow made it to his destination without being arrested or injured.
Some soldiers fared much worse when they challenged Jim Crow while traveling by bus, even when the challenge was slight. Sergeant Isaac Woodard returned to the U.S. in early 1946 after surviving 15 months in the Pacific theater. He was discharged in Georgia, and was still in his Army uniform traveling home to South Carolina on a Greyhound bus. He had the audacity to ask to be treated like a man. He asked a bus driver if there would be enough time to relieve himself during a stop. The bus driver replied, "Boy, go on back and sit down and keep quiet." Woodard replied, "God damn it, talk to me like I'm talking to you. I'm a man just like you." In response, the bus driver summoned police. The police chief of Batesburg, South Carolina beat Woodard so badly that his billy club broke when he smashed into Woodard's eye sockets, blinding him for life. South Carolina federal judge Richard Gergel documented Woodard's plight in his book "Unexampled Courage."
In February 1946, war veteran James Stevenson and his mother did something black patrons in the past would not have dared to do. They complained to a store clerk about inadequate service in Columbia, Tennessee. The clerk assaulted Stevenson's mother and Stevenson pushed the clerk through a storefront window. Crowds of black and whites gathered, and two black men were shot and killed.
Ralph Abernathy enlisted in the Army during World War II. He rose to the rank of platoon sergeant. He later collaborated with Martin Luther King, Jr. to form the Montgomery Improvement Association. That was the group that organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus.
Robert Franklin Williams was a Marine who came home convinced that blacks could achieve racial equality. When another black veteran named Bennie Montgomery, also home from the war and working as a sharecropper in 1946, defended himself after a white landowner kicked and slapped him, the white man died. Montgomery was executed by the state of North Carolina. The Ku Klux Klan had wanted to lynch Montgomery, and feeling robbed of the opportunity, stormed the funeral home to claim Montgomery's body. The Klan was met by 40 black veterans with guns. Using his military prowess, Williams and the others defended their fellow veteran's body. Not a shot was fired, and the Klansmen drove away. When the Klan tried to burn down the home of another black man trying to integrate the county swimming pool, Williams and other veterans again rebuffed the KKK.
International notoriety of Williams was achieved when he raised protests over the arrest of two little black boys, one aged 7 and the other 9, after they kissed a little white girl who was either 7 or 8. An appointee of the governor prosecuted the boys. The boys were sent to a state reformatory in 1958. Williams' NAACP chapter hired an experienced appellate lawyer from New York. A London newspaper reported on the incident throughout Europe and Asia, and Eleanor Roosevelt tried to intervene. Demonstrations against the United States over the case were held in Paris, Rome, Vienna and Rotterdam. In 1959, the governor of North Carolina pardoned and released the boys.
Medgar Evers served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1945, reaching the rank of sergeant. He fought in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944. In 1946, Evers gathered a group of young black men and headed for the courthouse intending to vote in the Democratic Party primary. They were prevented from voting by 20 armed white men. Evers spent the rest of his life fighting for civil rights until he was assassinated. He and his brother spearheaded boycotts against gas stations that refused to let blacks use their restrooms. In 1963, he was shot in the back by a member of the White Citizens' Council in Jackson, Mississippi.
Clyde Kennard was an American Korean War veteran and civil rights pioneer from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He tried to desegregate higher education in Mississippi. Kennard served in the United States Army in Germany and Korea for seven years. After he was honorably discharged, he studied at the University of Chicago for three years. But when his father died, he went back to Mississippi to help his mother run the family farm, intending to finish his studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. Local whites pulled all sorts of stunts to prevent Kennard's attending the university, including trumping up criminal charges. The last time he was arrested, it was for burglary, a felony. An all-white jury took just 10 minutes to convict him. The appellate opinion about his case can be found at 242 Miss. 691. Kennard was sent to the penitentiary where he had to work long days on the prison's cotton plantation, and died a few years later. Two years after his death, the first black students were admitted to the University of Southern Mississippi. In 1991, the Clarion-Ledger published documents showing that Kennard had been framed. The Mississippi Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring Kennard as the "forgotten civil rights pioneer," and a circuit judge declared him innocent of the "bogus charges" in 2006.
Harry S. Truman served in the Missouri National Guard. During World War I, he was deployed to France. After the war, he achieved the rank of colonel in the Army Reserves.
Truman was inaugurated president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. A few months later, he appointed Frederick Vinson as chief justice and Harold Burton as an associate justice to the United States Supreme Court. Vinson, a veteran, would later author the opinion voiding court enforcement of restrictive covenants, Shelley v. Kraemer. Burton, also a veteran who served in World War I, was an active member of the NAACP and was one of the justices who ruled in Brown v. Board of Education.
Truman was very troubled over the treatment of returning African-American service members, and often spoke about Isaac Woodard's blinding. In 1946, he issued Executive Order 9808, establishing his President's Committee on Civil Rights, a committee charged with examining the condition of civil rights in the U.S. Truman was the first president to address the NAACP in 1947, when he pledged his support for upholding the civil rights of all Americans.
In 1948, Truman issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981. E.O. 9980 ordered the desegregation of the federal work force and E.O. 9981 abolished racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Western Europe during World War II. He led a massive invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe that began on D-Day, June 6, 1944. In 1952, he was elected president.
In 1957, Eisenhower ordered federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas in response to violent public hostility when black children tried to integrate a high school. The governor of Arkansas closed Little Rock high schools throughout the 1958-1959 school year.
Also in 1957, Eisenhower signed into law the first civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It was Eisenhower who proposed a civil rights bill to provide federal protection for the voting rights of African-Americans. The bill created a national Civil Rights Commission, elevated the Civil Rights section into a full-blown division of the Justice Department and authorized the attorney general to seek injunctions in voting rights cases. The act also clearly states it is unlawful for a private individual as well as someone acting under color of law to interfere or attempt to interfere with the right to vote at any general, special or primary election concerning federal offices. Then, in 1960, Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, explicitly permitting the federal government to bring voting suits against the states.
In September 1953, Chief Justice Frederick Vinson died. Eisenhower nominated the former governor of California, Earl Warren, as the new Chief. Warren was confirmed by the Senate in March 1954. On May 17, 1954, he issued a unanimous opinion he authored, Brown v. Board of Education.
John F. Kennedy served in the Navy in World War II. He received two medals for heroism and the Purple Heart. He succeeded Eisenhower as president. In 1963, Kennedy proposed legislation that would become law after he was assassinated. In 1962, he signed Executive Order 11063, banning segregation in federally funded housing. In 1963, he delivered a speech calling for Americans to recognize civil rights as a moral cause. Kennedy's various proposals culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
During World War II, Lyndon B. Johnson was appointed a lieutenant commander in the United States Naval Reserve. He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for his bravery. He became president on November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President Kennedy.
Johnson was able to bring home the civil rights bill that Kennedy hoped to pass. His significant legislative experience allowed him to maneuver through the intricacies of Congress in a way few could have done. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by Johnson on July 2, 1964. He later signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Supreme Court
The opinion in Morgan v. Com. of Virginia was issued in 1946, and likely helped give those returning service members some encouragement to speak up about their own civil rights. In fact, there was a 1947 ditty that went:
You don't have to ride jim crow,
You don't have to ride jim crow,
Get on the bus, set any place,
'Cause Irene Morgan won her case,
You don't have to ride jim crow.
The Morgan case concerned a Virginia statute that required a woman on a bus in Virginia on her way to Maryland to move to the back of the bus while in Virginia. Morgan was represented by Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed the first black justice of the nation's highest court. In Morgan, the Supreme Court held Virginia's statute interfered with interstate commerce and was invalid. Of the seven justices in the majority, five definitely served in the military, and one might have served. Justices Stanley Reed, Frederick Vinson, Frank Murphy, Felix Frankfurter and Hugo Black served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Justice William O. Douglas claimed he had been an Army private, but some historians say this claim is false.
In 1948, the Supreme Court issued Shelley v. Kraemer, holding that courts would no longer enforce restrictive covenants which have the purpose of the exclusion of persons of designated race from ownership or occupancy of real property. The plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall and Loren Miller. Miller was later appointed to the California Superior Court, County of Los Angeles. Of the six justices who took part in the consideration of the Shelley v. Kraemer opinion, Frederick Vinson, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Frank Murphy, Harold Burton and William O. Douglas, five were definitely veterans and Douglas was possibly a veteran.
On the famous opinion ordering desegregation of America's public schools, Brown v. Board of Education, sat World War I veterans Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Stanley Reed, Sherman Minton, Tom Clark and Harold Burton. Thus, six of the nine justices who issued Brown were definitely veterans. Douglas, the possible veteran, was on the case as well. Besides Chief Justice Earl Warren, Robert Jackson was also on the court. He served as chief U.S. prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany.
Notable among the many legislators who fought to attain passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was Republican Congressman William Moore McCulloch. McCulloch served in the Army during World War II. In Congress, he represented a rural conservative district in Ohio. A 2014 New York Times article, written 50 years after the act was passed, says there is "a good case to be made that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have become law without him." His district was only 2.7% black, but he descended from abolitionists and was said to be appalled by Jim Crow. In 1964, McCulloch was the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. The Times article says he agreed to active collaboration with the Democratic White House to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Among the documents found in McCulloch's papers was a handwritten note from Jacqueline Kennedy: "Your integrity under such pressures is what makes our political system worth fighting and dying for."
Another Republican, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois was also instrumental in the passage of the act. Dirksen dropped out of college to enlist in the Army, serving as an artillery officer during World War I. He was Senate Minority Leader in 1964, and developed a working relationship with the Democratic Majority Leader. When the original civil rights bill was held up in a filibuster for 54 days, Dirksen helped break the Southern filibuster and was one of the authors of the substitute bill that finally went through.
Democrat Mike Mansfield was the Senate Majority Leader from 1961 until 1977. He served in the United States Navy during World War I. He is credited with following a procedure that permitted the Civil Rights Act to be openly discussed in the Senate, keeping it from dying in the Judiciary Committee.
Senator Hubert Humphrey, Democratic Majority whip, tried to join the military three times. When the Navy would not commission him as an officer, he tried to join as an enlisted man. He was rejected both times because he was color blind. He also tried to enlist in the Army but couldn't pass the physical there either. He was the lead author of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Veterans of the United States Armed Forces helped in securing civil rights for all Americans. They believed in our country, knowing what it was capable of achieving. All of us should realize that if something important needs to be done, we probably can't go wrong if we ask a veteran to do it. Veterans deserve our tribute.