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U.S. celebrates 50 years of integrated military

Although blacks in uniform had fought in American conflicts throughout the country's history, including the Civil War, rarely had they been treated as equals  
July 24, 1998
Web posted at: 12:56 p.m. EDT (1256 GMT)

In this story:

(CNN) -- It took decades to fully integrate the U.S. military, but there is general agreement that what President Harry Truman did 50 years ago this weekend helped ignite the country's civil rights movement and put its largest armed service, the Army, in the forefront of race relations.

On July 26, 1948, Truman issued a then-controversial executive order that called for "equality of treatment for all persons in the armed services, without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

Though African Americans in uniform had fought and bled for the United States throughout its history, rarely had they been treated as equals to whites. For that reason, 1948 was a milestone.

"It was good for the country and good for the services and it meant a great deal to a large number of citizens of the country," says retired Air Force Col. Charles McGee.

In World War II, McGee belonged to an all-black combat unit called the Tuskegee Airmen  

In World War II, he belonged to the Tuskegee Airmen, a distinguished all-black combat unit established by the Army Air Corps in 1942. ( 136 K/11 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Answering the call

The Army is making quite a celebration of the anniversary. Retired Gen. Colin Powell -- the first black to serve as chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff -- was to speak on Friday night at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

Defense Secretary William Cohen will be among those participating in a Washington commemoration.

historical video
Black volunteers helped the U.S. win the Battle of the Bulge in World War II  

But perhaps the high point of anniversary observances was Thursday's bestowal of Bronze Star medals on five African-American World War II veterans.

They were among 2,221 blacks answering Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's emergency request in 1944 to serve in the front lines with units depleted in the fight against Germany.

The opportunity to be the first black soldiers to serve with white troops on the front lines came with a catch, however. The volunteers had to give up their noncommissioned officer's stripes and serve as privates.

When they returned to their units at the end of the war, their lost rank was not restored.

After the war, when the military decided to award the Bronze Star to all who had served as combat infantrymen, these men were not contacted.

Through contacts by black veterans organizations and individual letters, the Army learned of its oversight and took steps this year to correct the record.

Slippage on race issues?

CNN's Gene Randall reports on the anniversary
Windows Media 28K 56K

But along with the celebrating come racial complaints. Among them: too few black officers and friction between whites and blacks over promotions and job assignments.

The army's highest-ranking African American, Gen. Johnnie Wilson, says he has seen some slippage on race issues. Complacency will breed distrust within the ranks that "could mean a fatality on the battlefield," he told CNN. ( 264 K/23 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

In May, Cohen said the service of African Americans in the U.S. armed forces is both a moral imperative and a military necessity.

Fifty years ago, President Truman apparently believed much the same thing.

Correspondent Gene Randall contributed to this report.
(stories about Tuskegee Airmen ??)
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