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Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Executive Order 9981: The Beginning of Equal Opportunity Program

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Edward Williams of St. Louis, exchanges a hearty handshake with his Commander-in-Chief, President Harry S. Truman, Oct. 13, 1950, at a casual meeting during the President's morning walk. Williams had been in the Air Force nine years at the time of this photograph. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Edward Williams of St. Louis, exchanges a hearty handshake with his Commander-in-Chief, President Harry S. Truman, Oct. 13, 1950, at a casual meeting during the President's morning walk. Williams had been in the Air Force nine years at the time of this photograph. (Courtesy photo)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE, Mo. -- On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman defied members of his political party, dogmatic naysayers and the majority of the American populous, when he signed Executive Order 9981. This action occurred during an election year when he was running for president. 

What is Executive Order 9981? This directive prohibits segregation based on race, color, religion or national origins within the armed forces. 

As our nation recognized the 60th anniversary of the historic event, we need to ponder why a man, whose paternal and maternal grandparents had possession of enslaved people, would sign such an order. Moreover, in 1922, he considered joining the Ku Klux Klan to enhance his credentials as a candidate for Jackson County, Mo. eastern judge. Historian Michael K. Gardner wrote in his book Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risk that Truman "was conditioned to be a racist." So, why did he decide to integrate the armed forces? 

His awakening to civil rights occurred during World War I while he was serving as the commander of D Battery, 129th Field Artillery, Missouri Army National Guard, consisting mainly of Irish Catholics. His long time friendship with his Army buddy and post war business partner, Edward Jacobson was another factor. Jacobson was Jewish and was the co-proprieter with Truman of Truman and Jacobson Clothing Store in Kansas City from 1919 - 1922. Through these relationships, Truman witnessed how discrimination affected people based on their national origin and religion. 

Moreover, atrocities such as murders and lynching occurring to returning African American veterans from World War II sickened the 33rd president. In his book, Harry S. Truman His Life and Time, Brian Burnes wrote about Truman's reactions after hearing of these incidents, "...my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas were dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." 

In February 1948, when some southern Democratic senators were questioning his unconventional civil rights policies, Truman wrote to them stating, "... whatever my inclination as a native of Missouri might have been, as President, I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evil like this." The man from Independence, Mo., was aware the nation that engaged in battles for freedom on the continents of northern Africa, Europe and Asia could not forge into peace with racism destroying its democratic fiber. 

The nation and senior military leaders did not embrace Executive Order 9981 with fanfare. The day after Executive Order 9981 was signed, Army Chief General Oman N. Bradley stated that desegregation would come to the Army only when it became a fact in the rest of American society. Bradley, a Missouri resident and known as the "GI's general," was given a tongue-lashing from his commander-in-chief. 

Before the end of 1948, the Navy and Air Force were implementing their plans for integrating their forces. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson approved the Air Force integration plan in May 1949. The Army procrastinated implementing Executive Order 9981 until the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 due to combat causalities in white units and the large number of African American recruits. The last of the all-black units in the United States military was abolished in September 1954. 

So, what does this have to do with the role of the Air Forces equal opportunity program in the 21st Century? This one decree opened numerous probabilities along with challenges of uniting a total force regardless of race, color, national origin, religion and gender. Equal Opportunity supports the global Air Force mission. 

Truman once stated, "You know that being an American is more than a matter of where your parents came from. It is a belief that all men are created free and equal and that everyone deserves an even break." 

At a recent Pentagon ceremony, honoring the passage of Executive Order 9981, Ken Hechler, 93-year-old speechwriter for Truman said, "it takes forthrightness for people in positions of leadership and that was Harry Truman's moral compass..."