It was nearly 70 years ago in April 1943 that the U.S. Marie Corps accepted Black units. It was the last military brand to do so. Now finally Congress has voted to grant the first Black fighters the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
"The Tuskegee Airmen, who were Black pilots, received their recognition decades after their well-documented valor during World War II. Frank Smith, director of the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., lists thousands of Blacks whose service on behalf of the Union Army led to the North's victory. This year is the sesquicentennial of The Civil War and we are still waiting for recognition of their contributions," explains military expert Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of CUNY.
Congress voted 422-0 vote to honor about 20,000 Montford Point Marines who trained in a separate facility called Montford Point that operated at Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1942 to 1949 during which time all military branches were segregated. Some of these Marines fought at Iwo Jima and were shipped to Japan to clean up after the atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki.
According to Browne-Marshall, this is a move in the right direction for the military in terms of racial relations. "It should give an even deeper sense of pride (for enlisted minority). My relatives have proudly served in the military. However, they have also encountered racism at different stages of their career. The military chapter of my book "Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present" recounts the centuries-long struggle of men and women of color who courageously served their country despite racial prejudice," she notes.
Today, minorities account for more than a third of active-duty forces, with Blacks leading at more than 17%, according to Defense Department statistics from 2008; however, the higher the rank, the fewer the minorities. A report by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recently found the following:
- Non-Hispanic whites make up 66% of the U.S. population, but account for 77% of active-duty officers
- Blacks account for 12% of the U.S. population but only 8% of active-duty officers
- Hispanics, who make up 15% of the U.S. population, have only 5% of the officer corps
Despite these numbers, Browne-Marshall says racism in the military has decreased. "The military was desegregated by President Harry Truman's Executive Order 9981 in 1948. This was six years before Brown v. Board of Education," Browne-Marshall points out. "Although racial prejudice exists in all aspects of American society, including the armed forces, the military has always offered opportunities in employment, training, and promotion that may not be found in civilian life."