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Let Us Fight as Free Men

Black Soldiers and Civil Rights

By Christine Knauer

Publication Year: 2014

Today, the military is one the most racially diverse institutions in the United States. But for many decades African American soldiers battled racial discrimination and segregation within its ranks. In the years after World War II, the integration of the armed forces was a touchstone in the homefront struggle for equality—though its importance is often overlooked in contemporary histories of the civil rights movement. Drawing on a wide array of sources, from press reports and newspapers to organizational and presidential archives, historian Christine Knauer recounts the conflicts surrounding black military service and the fight for integration.

Let Us Fight as Free Men shows that, even after their service to the nation in World War II, it took the persistent efforts of black soldiers, as well as civilian activists and government policy changes, to integrate the military. In response to unjust treatment during and immediately after the war, African Americans pushed for integration on the strength of their service despite the oppressive limitations they faced on the front and at home. Pressured by civil rights activists such as A. Philip Randolph, President Harry S. Truman passed an executive order that called for equal treatment in the military. Even so, integration took place haltingly and was realized only after the political and strategic realities of the Korean War forced the Army to allow black soldiers to fight alongside their white comrades. While the war pushed the civil rights struggle beyond national boundaries, it also revealed the persistence of racial discrimination and exposed the limits of interracial solidarity.

Let Us Fight as Free Men reveals the heated debates about the meaning of military service, manhood, and civil rights strategies within the African American community and the United States as a whole.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America


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Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-12

When Grant Reynolds volunteered for the army at the beginning of the Second World War, he did so with much patriotism and high hopes. He wanted to support the nation’s cause and believed in the necessity of the mission to halt fascism across the globe. But he was also convinced that he could make a difference for his African American comrades and improve...

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1. Fighting for Respect

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pp. 13-32

For A. Philip Randolph, it was a fight with ‘‘gloves off.’’1 The black labor leader was no longer willing to accept the mistreatment African Americans experienced on a daily basis. Long before America’s direct involvement in the Second World War, Randolph was among the many African Americans who vehemently articulated their growing impatience and dissatisfaction...

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2. Coming Home

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pp. 33-54

For African American soldiers, the return home came with the harsh realization that not much had changed in the United States. Well aware of their special position in the African American community, white supremacists used the defamation of black soldiers as a powerful strategy to disfranchise and degrade the black community. By May 1945, with the war in Europe...

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3. Stepping up the Fight

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pp. 55-81

Grant Reynolds returned to his civilian life earlier than he had expected. During his nearly three years of service as a black chaplain in the army, Reynolds not only gave spiritual guidance to African American soldiers, but also fought against segregation and discrimination in various stateside military bases. Known as a ‘‘troublemaker,’’ he was forced to leave the army...

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4. Mass Civil Disobedience

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pp. 82-111

People all across the nation tried to make sense of the new and radical approach to integration. The call for disobedience made it into the pages of major national newspapers, when news on black issues rarely appeared in white publications.1 The civil disobedience campaign was a serious enough issue that reflections on its implication for the country and national...

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5. Truman’s Order

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pp. 112-129

The pressure on the president to make decisive changes mounted, as the chances of winning over the increasingly important black vote in the upcoming presidential election became more difficult. At the end of June 1948, an anonymous White House memorandum recommended that Truman ‘‘support the introduction of moderate [civil rights] legislation beating...

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6. A Country They Never Knew

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pp. 130-162

Korea was at ‘‘its modern nadir’’1 when a new war began in the Far East country at the end of June 1950. Rural and scarred by an economic depression, war, and Japanese repression, Korea remained poverty-ridden and its people mostly illiterate. Its economy was deeply grounded in labor-intensive rice agriculture and technological advances remained scarce. In...

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7. Black Men at War

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pp. 163-194

Right from the start of the Korean War, African American newspapers and their war correspondents attempted to emphasize the necessity and advantages of integration. Black soldiers sent to war in integrated outfits would be the ultimate validation of their previous efforts in all wars. In the Courier, columnist Marjorie McKenzie wrote: ‘‘They [the headlines in black...

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8. A Mixed Army

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pp. 195-223

Although black soldiers achieved the first victory in Yech’on, the situation of the UN troops in Korea remained unstable. American troops and their allies continued to struggle in Korea’s rugged terrain against the North Korean fighting ability and high stamina. In early September 1950, the loss of Battle Mountain, a hill the opposing sides had long fought over, made...

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pp. 224-230

Today, sixty years after the end of the Korean War in 1953, military integration has become a reality. African Americans can be found in all positions and ranks of the military.1 In 1989, Colin Powell became the first black man to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he joined the armed forces in 1958, five years after the stalemate in Korea, the military, according...

Abbreviations and Acronyms

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pp. 231-234


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pp. 235-328


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pp. 329-338

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pp. 339-341

Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint; and although it is a lonely struggle, one needs a lot of help from start to finish.
It has been a great privilege to work with the University of Pennsylvania Press, especially Bob Lockhart, Rachel Taube, and Alison Anderson, who helped tremendously on the last steps of the...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209594
E-ISBN-10: 0812209591
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245974

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 15 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Margot Canaday, Glenda Gilmore, Michael Kazin, Thomas J. Sugrue See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 877363718
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Let Us Fight as Free Men

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Korean War, 1950-1953 -- Participation, African American.
  • African Americans -- Political activity -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American soldiers -- History -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Participation, African American.
  • Segregation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Armed Forces -- African Americans -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
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