Courtesy: NARA

When the U.S. military deployed troops to Korea in 1950, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was among them. President Truman had issued an executive order to integrate the military two years earlier, but many senior commanders simply ignored the command. Although the 24th's history dated back to the Civil War, the segregated regiment was under-resourced, under-trained and often sent into the most dismal situations.

A newspaper reporter from Baltimore's Afro-American first informed Thurgood Marshall that more than 50 black soldiers had been arrested in Korea, a number out of proportion to the average arrests of white soldiers. In 1951, the NAACP sent Marshall into the war-zone to investigate; he eventually cleared most of the soldiers' charges.


Marshall: There were records of trials, so-called trials, in the middle of the night where the men were sentenced to life imprisonment in hearings that lasted less than ten minutes. They were the old well-known drumhead court-martials, done in the heat of passion and in the heat of war.

There were fifty or sixty involved. One death penalty case. I remember in particular: the record showed that this man was charged with being absent in the presence of the enemy. Instead of being charged with AWOL, (Absent Without Leave) he was charged with cowardice in the presence of the enemy. And fortunately for him, he produced two witnesses: a major in the Medical Corps and a lieutenant in the Nurse Corps, both of whom testified that he was in a base hospital the very day that he was supposed to be AWOL. And despite their testimony, he was convicted and given life imprisonment.

Just prior to that, I was given an audience with General MacArthur, and I found it very interesting. I questioned him about the continuation of segregation in the Army and he said he was working on it. And I asked him how many years he'd been working on it, and he didn't really remember how many.

I reminded him that at the very time we were talking, the Air Force was completely integrated, and the Navy was quite integrated, and the only group not integrated was the Army. He said that he didn't find the Negroes qualified, and when he found them qualified, they would be integrated.

Interviewer: Do you have any further impressions of General MacArthur? Do you feel he was definitely biased or just opinionated?

Marshall: He was as biased as any person I've run across.

Interviewer: In other words, he felt basically that blacks were inferior?

Marshall: Inferior. No question about it. No question about it. I told him about all these instances. I said, "Well look, General - you've got all those guards out there with all this spit and polish and there's not one Negro in the whole group."

He said, "There's none qualified."

I said, "Well, what's qualification?"

He said, "In field battle, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."

I said, "Well, I just talked to a Negro yesterday, a sergeant, who has killed more people with a rifle than anybody in history. And he's not qualified?"

And he said, "No."

I said, "Well, now, General, remember yesterday you had the big band playing at the ceremony over there?"

He said, "Yes, wasn't it wonderful?"

I said, "Yeah. The Headquarters Band, it's beautiful." I said, "Now General, just between you and me, goddamn it, don't you tell me that there's no Negro who can play a horn!"

That's when he said for me to go.

There's gotta be prejudice. That's all it is.

Best proof of it was--General [Matthew] Ridgeway took over after him, and desegregated in about three weeks. Desegregated the whole thing. And the only opposition he found was among the Negroes [laughter]. They didn't want to be integrated. No, that man was something.