Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Black American veterans have struggled with inequality in the military for hundreds of years. From the targeted lynchings of Black service members to the intentional placing of Black troops in more dangerous positions than their white counterparts, Black American veterans have been hurt time and time again.
Black Americans Were Prohibited From Enlisting in the Civil War
Starting towards the beginning of American history, when the Civil War broke out, free Black Americans living in the north were prohibited from enlisting by federal law. President Lincoln feared that border states would secede if he allowed Black recruits. Similar to this, the Union felt that allowing African-American soldiers to fight might also “affect white soldiers morale.”
However, as the death toll skyrocketed, the Union became desperate for troops. Eventually the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, which opened the doors for Black soldiers. Towards the end of the war, around 200,000 African-American men had enlisted.
When the Reconstruction period after the Civil War ended in 1877, Black veterans became walking targets for white supremacist violence and hate. Southern states denied African American veterans their right to bear arms and many white news outlets spread false rumors of Black soldiers assaulting white police officers.
Black soldiers were assaulted at much higher rates than Black citizens who had not served. They also faced a much higher risk of being driven out of their homes or experiencing a public lynching. In “Targeting Black Veterans,” the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) reported the violent experiences of Black Veterans after the Civil War. “At Bardstown in Nelson County, Kentucky, a mob brutally lynched a United States Colored Troops veteran. The mob stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and then cut off his sexual organs. He was then forced to run half a mile to a bridge outside of town, where he was shot and killed,” according to the report.
Black Soldiers Face the “Red Summer” after World War I
Come WWI, African Americans debated the merits of enlisting to fight for a country in which they were considered second class citizens. Ultimately, 380,000 Black men enlisted to fight in the first world war. Black Americans hoped that in doing so, they would increase the standing of the African American community as a whole upon returning home.
However, white Americans also felt the oncoming shift and worked to prevent the upcoming push for civil rights. Mississippi Senator James K. Vardaman, an outspoken white supremacist, and racist, warned the Senate floor in 1917 that returning Black veterans would “inflate his untutored soul with military airs” and that “his political rights must be respected.”
Upon Black veteran’s returning home, they were not welcomed with the willingness of their white peers to discuss and advance civil rights, but rather with hostility and discrimination. In the summer after the war, anti-Black riots rose in over 20 cities across America. Due to such extensive riots, it was dubbed the “Red Summer.” “This is the right time to show them what will and what will not be permitted, and thus save them much trouble in the future,” according to one Louisiana Newspaper.
On most accounts, as the Equal Justice Initiative found, the only possible provocation for such heinous hate crimes was the Black soldiers’ insistence upon wearing his uniform openly in public.
African-American Families Denied Promised Benefits Post World War II
After facing previous discrimination, over one million African American men enlisted to fight in WWII. Much like what had occurred in the Civil War, Black men were barred from combat until mounting casualties demanded more soldiers.
Black soldiers stationed in the South were forced to mainly perform menial non-combat jobs: cooking, labor work, and teamstering. African American soldiers weren’t allowed to eat next to their white counterparts, or restaurants that fed German prisoners of war.
Post-war, Black veterans were attacked and assaulted by fellow white passengers or drivers on the busses transporting them back to their homes. They also quickly found that the benefits promised in the GI bill did not apply to them.
The History Channel wrote that, “When lawmakers began drafting the GI Bill… Some feared that returning Black veterans would use public sympathy for veterans to advocate against Jim Crow laws. To make sure the GI Bill largely benefited white people, the Southern Democrats… ensured [the GI bill] helped as few Black people as possible.”
As time progressed, white veterans took advantage of the benefits that the GI bill provided. Stipends covered tuition expenses for white soldiers, and low interest mortgages allowed white families to settle down in newly built suburbs, where they began amassing wealth in skilled positions.
Opposed to this, redlining (Illegally refusing insurance or credit to a particular community – typically on the account of race) helped contain Black families into inner cities, which local governments began investing less money into. Black Veterans were also denied the education guaranteed under the GI bill, and oftentimes had to accept lower paying vocational jobs.
Ignoring Integration During the Korean War
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive order 9981, which desegregated the armed forces. “There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” Truman said.
Two years after this statement, North Korea invaded South Korea. Although the armed forces were ordered to be integrated by the Commander-in-Chief, numerous American military commanders ignored the demand.
When John Gragg, a Black man who served in the Koran war, was asked about segregation in the army during the Korean war, he said, “You still had white units, and black units. When I went to Korea the only white I had in my unit was a lieutenant… he was the company commander… 90 percent of all black units were commanded by white officers. And most of those officers… couldn’t make it in white units,” Gragg said in an interview with the Korean War Legacy Foundation.
Front Lines, and a Lack of Emotional Support Throughout Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was the first war to have fully integrated troops. However, racial discrimination still ran rampant. Of the nine million active service members, Black soldiers were disproportionately sent to the front lines, jailed or disciplined at higher rates, and promoted much less often.
Upon returning home, African American soldiers were also denied support by Veterans Affairs and were presented with menial job opportunities. “White counterparts got their same kinds of needs fulfilled—but when Blacks went to get their benefits, the counselors didn’t have time for them,” according to TIME magazine
In recent years, America has discovered that Veterans Affairs denied thousands of vulnerable veterans, and many have alleged that they specifically discriminated against veterans of color.
Injustice Continues to Exist Today
Racial inequities in the Military remain prevalent today. Racial injustice in America as a whole continues to be a large issue. After the passing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter was further ignited. This monumental uprising has bore fruit, uncovering many nasty truths about race in the U.S. — the Military included.
Just this year, the Senate elected the first Black Military Chief. Charles Brown Jr was voted unanimously into the position on June 9th. Brown released a video a week before his confirmation, in which he talked about Floyd, and his own experiences with racial inequality while in the military.
In the video, he said that he was often the only Black man in the room, rarely had a mentor that looked like him, and had to work twice as hard as his colleagues for the same amount of credit.
Following the nationwide protests and riots, the military has had to rethink some of their normalized racism. In June, the Marine Corps and Navy banned the confederate flag. The Pentagon also proposed renaming army bases that carry the names of Confederate officers. However, President Trump opposed this action.
“Historically, it was a provocation for black men to wear the uniform, to claim that role. A black man sitting in the White House is a similar provocation. The reality of a more diverse society, with more people demanding respect, is a provocation. And Trump is the response,” EJI founder and director Bryan Stevenson said to the New Yorker.
African American soldiers have been disrespected, disregarded, and locked out of decision making rooms for centuries. While progress has been made, from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, to the electing of a Black Military Chief, much is left to be desired in terms of civil rights within the military.
Through Teen Lenses: What steps do you want to see the US military take concerning racial equality?
“I’ve always known there have been countless racial issues within the US Military in the past but never realized how many of them still exist today. I think [the US Military has] a long way to go before reaching complete racial equality but there are plenty of steps they can take to get there. The first thing I want to see happen is for [the US Military] to take full responsibility for their actions and publicly apologize to all service members who have been discriminated against because of the pigment of their skin. No matter what [service members] look like, they all deserve to be treated and honored in the same way! There’s no way to change the past but the military can acknowledge all the things they did wrong and then overcome and learn from their terrible mistakes. Only then will things be able to improve.” Kaitlyn Forsberg, 15, Sophomore
“I think the United States military has made great progress in promoting racial equality and equal opportunity within its ranks. I think areas that can be improved upon are the loosening of restrictions regarding facial hair and head coverings. This would make it easier for men and women of religions and cultures which have facial hair and head covering requirements (Islam, Sikhism, Orthodox Judaism to name a few), to serve their country without having to sacrifice important aspects of their faith.” Ryan Moorhead, 17, Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
For one, I’d like to see them stop targeting lower income schools; recruiters pray on lower class kids who are primarily part of marginalized groups and give them the option of joining the military and risking their lives simply because they can’t afford higher education. I’d also like to see a harsher punishment and stricter oversight of soldiers when it come to assault and torture of civilians; there can no longer be thousands of innocent civilians (mostly from the Middle East) being assaulted and tortured by our armed forces. Finally, I’d like to see more punishment and oversight when it comes to racial discrimination within our troops – preventing white and non-minorities soldiers from harming (mentally and physically) soldiers of marginalized backgrounds. We simply can’t have bigots wielding weapons of war. Isra Qadri, 16, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“Equality should be everywhere especially in the military where your race does not matter. Everyone’s got a single thought in mind and that is protecting and fighting for your country. It’s sad that racial discrimination exists in military. US military should take some simple steps such as equal amount of credit, end discrimination against veterans of color and integrate armed forces because at the end of the day what matters is how veteran’s were ready to sacrifice their life in helping to protect the dignity of their country. Aadya Gandhi, 16, Junior at Wootton High, Rockville