JBSA-FORT SAM HOUSTON –
The theme of this year's Black History Month is "Civil Rights in America" and also marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
However, the passage of this law might never have happened if it hadn't been for millions of African-Americans who served their nation as Soldiers throughout its history.
"Once a person has demonstrated their commitment to the nation by serving in the military, there can be little challenge by those who doubt the quality of African-Americans to deny them their civil rights," said Dr. Isaac Hampton II, U.S. Army South command historian.
The civil rights movement, which gained momentum in the 1950s after the formal desegregation of the armed forces, had its origins during World War I, when African-American Soldiers serving in Europe realized the rest of the world was not like America.
"When the Soldiers came back from France, they had a new mentality," Hampton said.
"The 'new negro' - as they were known - wanted change."
African-American participation in World War II would further push the struggle for civil rights forward, as they launched the "double 'V' campaign" in 1942. This campaign called for two victories; the first over the Axis powers and the second that African-Americans receive full citizenship rights at home.
Throughout the war and post-war period, African-Americans used their growing political power to demand integration of the armed forces.
This goal was realized when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which established equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services.
"Executive Order 9981 was a major flashpoint in history," Hampton said. "One of our most famous and hallowed institutions in America is taking this step to integrate. This was an extremely important step for our nation."
However, it would take nearly eight years to fully desegregate the Army, largely due to significant institutional resistance from within. The Army didn't want to change.
"The story of African-Americans Soldiers up to desegregation was in the words of one former Soldier, 'we were needed, but never wanted,'" said Hampton. "There was a cultural idea that blacks don't deserve the honor of leading troops into combat."
The last segregated units had integrated by 1956 and the momentum for equality and civil rights was quickly moving to the forefront of American society. The momentum continues even today, however it maintains its strength in the actions of those who set it in motion to begin with.
"As we pay tribute to the heroes, sung and unsung, of African-American history, we recall the inner strength that sustained millions in bondage," said President Barack Obama, taken from the Presidential Proclamation for National African American History Month 2014. "We remember the courage that led activists to defy lynch mobs and register their neighbors to vote."