African Americans have fought for the United States throughout its history, defending and serving a country that in turn denied them their basic rights as citizens. Despite policies of racial segregation and discrimination, African American soldiers played a significant role from the colonial period to the Korean War. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that African American soldiers began to receive the recognition and equality they deserved.
The beginning of the 20th century was marked by World War I, and thousands of African Americans rushed to register for the draft. Their enthusiasm stemmed in part to defend liberty and democracy in Europe, but also from the opportunity it gave them to prove that they deserved greater rights at home. Their enlistment rate was high, as was their desire to serve on the front lines. However military leaders believed that African-Americans did not have the physical, mental or moral character to withstand warfare and they were commonly relegated to labor-intensive service positions. The majority saw little combat.
Still, worthy contributions were made to America’s war effort and one outstanding example was the 369th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”) which served on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the war and made notable due to the fact that they had received less training. During this time the unit never lost any prisoners or territory to the enemy. France awarded the entire unit with Croix de Guerre, that country’s highest military honor and 171 members of the regiment were awarded the Legion of Merit.
In the lead up to and during World War II the military establishment continued to maintain that African Americans soldiers were not as capable as their white counterparts and needed more intensive leadership. Despite the continuing discrimination, more than a million African-Americans volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces in the fight against Hitler.
As the war progressed attitudes began to slowly change. Some African Americans were trained in elite positions never offered previously, such as the Air Force, and some units were desegregated for the first time at the Battle of the Bulge. In just a few years the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard made significant advancements in the treatment of their African American personnel.
World War II was a watershed for race relations within the Armed Forces, and it marked the beginning of the end for racial separation within military units. In 1948 with the demand for civil rights mounting, President Harry S. Truman ordered desegregation of the Armed Services and equality of treatment and opportunity without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.
Reform was slow, however, and it wasn’t until 1953 that segregation officially ended when the Secretary of Defense announced that the last all-black unit had been abolished.
The Korean War put this new policy to the test. African Americans served in all combat service elements alongside their white counterparts and were involved in all major combat operations, including the advance of United Nations Forces to the Chinese border. Two African-American Army sergeants, Cornelius H. Charlton and William Thompson, earned the Medal of Honor.
The 1960s marked a major transformation for African American citizens in the United States. The decade also marked the first major combat deployment of an integrated military to Vietnam.
The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of African Americans ever to serve in an American war. There was a marked turnaround from the attitude in previous wars that black men were not fit for combat – during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action.
Following the Vietnam War and the phasing-out of conscription, the number of African Americans volunteering to join the Army grew exponentially, enlisting at rates far above their share of the population. In general African-Americans account for nearly 25% of all enlisted Army soldiers while making up just 13% of the population.
In 1991, forty years after military segregation ended, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense, oversaw Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. He was an African-American named Colin L. Powell.