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The Armed Forces Integrate

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Laying the Groundwork for Civil Rights

National Archives and Records Administration
It would take decades for blacks to overcome blatant prejudice in the U.S. military. But President Truman's desegregation order was an historic opportunity for men like Bill Peterson.

"I went from a high-school dropout to almost a graduate degree," explains Peterson. "I don't think I would have gotten that far in civilian life. I think that history will reflect that the military led the way and is still leading the way for integration and people of color - to include women - in leadership roles."

The integrated military also meant that millions of whites went home with new knowledge about blacks. Charles Day was one of them.

"I found out they're smart, remembers Day. "Some of them are smart as whips…As a kid I just thought well, 'They're maybe not as good as me.' That opinion changed drastically after I got to Korea - after a period."

Interviewer: "Do you think it was a good thing that the army was integrated?"

"Yes, it changed some opinions - like it did me."

Historian Philip Klinkner says Korea would lay crucial groundwork for the growing civil rights movement in the U.S.

"I think it showed African Americans as well as white Americans that integrated institutions could work - that a lot of the sort of intellectual and pragmatic arguments that were made for Jim Crow institutions really were shown to be myths, that American could move toward a more integrated society without some sort of crisis setting in."

After Korea, the U.S. military became America's most integrated social institution, producing hundreds of black generals, offering education, job training and solid careers African Americans. Still, many black veterans say their service in Korea has been overlooked. They are the forgotten soldiers of a forgotten war. More than three thousand African Americans died in Korea. Veteran Nathan Street remembers helping one wounded black soldier who he says fought for a country, which at the time, scarcely deserved his sacrifice.

"He was hit in the head and the chest," recalls Street, "he was breathing heavy, like he was snoring, there was blood in his lungs. We got him down, carried him down the hill and I seen the medic later and asked how he was doing. He said he died. And I didn't know him. And I wish I could tell his family, we tried. And then I think, he gave his life for what? He probably couldn't vote where he came from. But…things like that haunt me."

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