Seventy-five years ago, President Harry S. Truman signed two executive orders that, for the first time, desegregated the U.S. military and the federal workforce.
On July 26, 1948, Truman put his signature on Executive Order 9980, titled "Regulations Governing Fair Employment Practices Within the Federal Establishment." Following that, he signed Executive Order 9981, titled "Establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services."
We can draw on the talents and the strengths of skilled and brave Americans of every color, creed and background."
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III
Together, those executive orders opened doors within the federal workforce and the nation's military that had previously been closed to people of color.
During a commemoration event at the Pentagon today, Defense Department leaders reflected on the opportunities those orders created for generations of Americans and how eliminating barriers benefited not only federal workers and service members, but the nation as a whole.
"President Truman's actions have created progress well beyond this department," Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said. "Any legal or moral justification for segregation crumbled in the wake of it. In the decades that followed, segregation in the nation's public schools and public spaces also came to an end. These decisions moved the entire nation closer to the promise of racial equality."
Since 1948, Hicks said, service members of color have proven through their actions what Truman knew to be true when he signed Executive Order 9981.
"Service members of color have risen through the ranks — commanding destroyer squadrons and submarines at sea ... launching to space and returning back home again ... breaking the glass ceiling and leading as four-star generals and admirals ... and representing the United States of America overseas," she said.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was traveling in the Indo-Pacific Command's theater of operations and was unable to attend the commemoration in person. However, his thoughts on the commemoration were made public on DOD's official website and were also read aloud at the event.
"The U.S. military is the finest fighting force on Earth because of our strategic advantages: We can draw on the talents and the strengths of skilled and brave Americans of every color, creed and background," Austin said. "As we reflect on the tremendous progress that our country has made over the past 75 years, we recommit ourselves to continue the noble work of all those who broke down barriers, fought prejudice, and worked to ensure that America's peerless military embodies the democratic ideals that it so proudly defends."