Blacks Lose Ground in the U.S. Military

Unlike Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not accelerated the progress of African-Americans to the top ranks.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Alexander was instrumental in transforming the top ranks of the Army during his tenure as army secretary from 1977 through 1981. He once rejected alist of officers proposed for promotion to general because it included no black candidates, even though he believed many black colonels “had served with distinction.” Alexander told the board that handled promotions to look more closely at the records of eligible black colonels-a process that resulted in strong black candidates being added to the promotion list.

One of the generals Alexander chose from that revised list was Colin Powell, who went on to become the nation’s top military officer when President George H.W. Bush chose him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When President Jimmy Carter appointed Alexander to his post, the Army had no more than eight black generals, he recalled. By the time he left his post in 1981, there were 30 black generals in the Army -a testament to the power of strong leadership. Alexander said that while President Obama is commander-in-chief of the military, any change in promotion practices would be most effectively implemented by other civilian military leaders. “It would be a pleasant but empty gesture for the president to say something about it publicly,” he said.

African Americans have served in every war since the Revolution. For much of that history, black troops were often forced into support roles, a form of discrimination that military leaders defended-despite all evidence—by saying black soldiers lacked the necessary smarts to fight and lead in battle. Although Truman ordered the military to desegregate in July 1948,  the process was not completed until after the Korean War and racial divisions persisted for years afterward.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy decided to restart a committee to look into equal opportunity in the Armed Forces, which was aimed at devising ways to get more blacks into the military. Much of that work was made moot by the realities of the Vietnam War, where the draft brought many African Americans to the front lines.  During the height of the war, from 1965-1969, blacks formed 11 percent of the U.S. population and made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. Many of them served in combat, prompting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who opposed the conflict, to call it “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.”