African-American History Month

7 Feb 2014 | Cpl. Sarah Cherry

The struggles and triumphs of social issues related to slavery and racism have had a lasting and profound impact on the culture of the United States, and couldn’t possibly be covered in a week.

From the thorns of racism grew the rose that is black history month, a month dedicated to honoring the ugly and beautiful in the history of black people in America.

Carter G. Woodson created negro history week, the forerunner to black history month, in 1926. He said that "if a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world."

Part of that history has been service in the American military, dating back to 1770.

"African Americans have served in every war waged by the United States," said historian David Coffey in Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. "From the Civil War through the Korean War, segregated African American units, usually officered by whites, performed in both combat and support capacities."

The nature of military service requires a certain level of trust and camaraderie that did not exist between civilians of different races. Although this closeness among service members burgeoned relations throughout the military, there was still a distinct disconnect throughout much of the history of the U.S. military.

"There were serious social, economic, and educational disparities between most black and white Americans [during WWI]," according to Military Heritage: The 20th Century. "Full citizenship was still an issue of importance to black Americans."

Although the racial gap would narrow throughout the years, it remained a prevalent issue.

"Blacks were limited to all ranks corporal and below, their officers were also white, and combat and combat support roles were denied them," according to Military Heritage. "In 1940, all services had less than 10% black people."

The United States government was working to close the racial gap by setting quotas for each branch of service. The Marine Corps did not allow black people to serve in any capacity until 1942, and only allowed service in segregated units then.

After World War I, the military began studying race and service to move toward a more balanced military. President Harry Truman ordered desegregation throughout the military in 1948, two years before conflict began in Korea.

Legislative advances saw more black troops in combat in Korea. In 1951, 13.5% of the military was black, however 80% of black soldiers were in segregated units.

In 1954, the Operations Research Office of Johns Hopkins University released study results concluding that racial segregation limited effectiveness, and integration increased effectiveness in military units. That same year the last segregated unit disbanded.

The forward movement was a promising step forward, but a step back would soon follow during the Vietnam conflict.

"The widespread violent reaction to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King brought the greatest racial turmoil to the armed forces," said Coffey. "Racial strife, rarely an issue among combat units because of shared risk and responsibility, became most evident in rear areas and on domestic installations."

During the Vietnam conflict, black Americans made up less than 10 percent of troops and nearly 20 percent of combat deaths. There were black officers, and 20 black recipients of the Medal of Honor.

"Civil rights leaders and other critics, including the formidable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the Vietnam conflict as racist: ‘a white man’s war, a black man’s fight,’" said Coffey. "King maintained that black youths represented a disproportionate share of early draftees and that African Americans faced a much greater chance of seeing combat."

When the draft ended in 1973, the racial makeup of the military changed. From 1980 through 2001, nearly one-fourth the military was black.

In 2001, retired Army general Colin Powell became the secretary of state, the highest ranking office held by a black person in the United States at that time. Several years later, first-term senator Barack Obama campaigned for presidency. The American people elected President Barack Obama in 2008.

Throughout the past, racism has been a powerfully divisive issue. It is imperative that history, with all its ugly thorns, is not lost to the depths of time.

Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, vowed, "Every Marine, from private to general, will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country."