During World War II, African Americans complained that discrimination at home could not be squared with the fight against intolerance overseas. President Roosevelt responded to this complaint by issuing an executive order in June 1941 directing that blacks be accepted into job-training programs in defense plants, forbidding discrimination by defense contractors and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). But with southerners firmly in control of major congressional committees, the president could go no further; moreover, with a war on, civil rights was a low priority.

Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor, found himself beset by a multitude of problems after the war, and put up no protest when Congress killed the wartime agency. Later on, however, he asked Congress to create a permanent FEPC, and in December 1946, he appointed a distinguished panel to serve as the President's Commission on Civil Rights, which would recommend "more adequate means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States."

The Commission issued its report, "To Secure These Rights," in October 1947, and it defined the nation's civil rights agenda for the next generation. The Commission noted the many restrictions on blacks, and urged that each person, regardless of race, color or national origin, should have access to equal opportunity in securing education, decent housing and jobs. Among its proposals, the Commission suggested anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, a permanent FEPC, and strengthening the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.

In a courageous act, Harry Truman sent a special message to Congress on February 2, 1948, calling for prompt implementation of the Commission's recommendations. Southerners immediately threatened a filibuster, so Truman, unable to secure action from the Congress, moved ahead using his executive authority. Among other things, he bolstered the civil rights division, appointed the first black judge to the federal bench, named several other blacks to high-ranking administration positions, and most important, on July 26, 1948, he issued the following executive order abolishing segregation in the armed forces and ordering full integration of all the services.

For further reading: Richard Dalfiume, Desegregation in the U.S. Armed Forces (1953); Donald R. McCoy and Richard T. Ruetten, Quest and Response: Minority Rights in the Truman Administration (1973); and William C. Berman, The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration (1970).


Establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services

Whereas it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense:

Now therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. 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.

2. There shall be created in the National Military Establishment an advisory committee to be known as the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which shall be composed of seven members to be designated by the President.

3. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to examine into the rules, procedures and practices of the armed services in order to determine in what respect such rules, procedures and practices may be altered or improved with a view to carrying out the policy of this order. The Committee shall confer and advise with the Secretary of the Air Force, and shall make such recommendations to the President and to said Secretaries as in the judgement of the Committee will effectuate the policy hereof.

4. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work, and to furnish the Committee such information or the services of such persons as the Committee may require in the performance of its duties.

5. When requested by the Committee to do so, persons in the armed services or in any of the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall testify before the Committee and shall make available for the use of the Committee such documents and other information as the Committee may require.

6. The Committee shall continue to exist until such time as the President shall terminate its existence by Executive Order.

Harry S. Truman

Source: Fed. Register 13 (1948): 4313.

Table of Contents