DOJ Commemorates 75th Anniversary Of The Racial Integration Of The Armed Forces

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Last week marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9981, which was issued by President Harry S. Truman (below middle) on July 26, 1948, and which directed the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces. The impact of Executive Order 9981 cannot be overstated; it was among the first federal actions of the modern civil rights era to counter discrimination against Black Americans and other racial minorities. It’s impact, over time, has fundamentally transformed the racial makeup and composition of our armed services, and it has greatly benefited our nation as a whole. 

Black Americans have contributed to military life throughout American history, serving in every conflict since the nation’s inception, including during the era of slavery. Yet for much of that history, their service has been marked by bigotry, discrimination, segregation, and sometimes even violence.

The story of Sgt. Isaac Woodard exemplifies the difficult path that many Black servicemembers and veterans have had to endure. Sgt. Woodard was a decorated Black soldier who was honorably discharged after serving more than three years in the Pacific during World War II. While traveling home to North Carolina by bus in February 1946 following his discharge, Sgt. Woodard, who was still wearing his uniform, asked the bus driver to stop so that he could use the restroom. The driver launched a verbal tirade against Sgt. Woodard, calling him “boy” along with other slurs; Sgt. Woodard, for his part, stood up for himself and asked the driver to treat him with dignity and respect. When the bus stopped in South Carolina, the driver called the local police. Sgt. Woodard was arrested by the local Batesburg, South Carolina, police chief Lynwood Shull, and he was brutally beaten and deliberately blinded while in police custody.

Sgt. Woodard survived this atrocity to become a leading example of the violent oppression of Black people in the South. On Sept. 19, 1946, a delegation of civil rights leaders told Sgt. Woodard’s story to President Truman. The President’s outrage about the encounter moved him to address civil rights inequities in the United States, including the ongoing discrimination and mistreatment faced by Black soldiers in the military and when they returned home.[1]

On this anniversary, the Civil Rights Division and its Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative are reflecting on the extraordinary contributions that people of color and other historically underrepresented individuals have made to our armed forces. Despite segregation, profound inequalities, and unconscionable deprivations of rights, these heroes served their nation faithfully, bravely defending the rest of us in the face of deadly threats. We are also aware that, despite progress in the Armed Forces, there is still work to be done. As the Department of Defense has acknowledged, racial disparities in the military continue to this day.[2] The Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative and the entire Civil Rights Division will continue their work to ensure that servicemembers, veterans, and their families can fully enjoy the rights and freedoms for which they have so valiantly sacrificed.

The Civil Rights Division recently convened a virtual listening session with organizations representing Black veterans to discuss the issues faced by the Black veteran community as well as some of the resources available to assist them.  For more information about SVI’s work or to learn how to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division, please visit our website at


[1] Richard Gergel, Unexampled Courage:  The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring (Sarah Crichton Books) 2019.

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