- Black, White & Olive Drab: Racial Integration at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and the Civil Rights Movement
As a native South Carolinian who spent summers in Columbia visiting his grandparents, the first thing I think of when someone mentions Fort Jackson is sweltering heat. As a historian who studies the American South, the second thing I think of is journalist Lee Nichols's 1953 peek inside a barracks at the fort where "busily cleaning their rifles, Negroes from Mississippi and Arkansas sat on double-decker bunks among whites from Georgia and South Carolina with no apparent antipathy." C. Vann Woodward viewed this scene with great optimism, anticipating significant improvements in U.S. race relations as "hundreds of thousands of men discharged from the services entered civilian life with an experience that very few, whether Northerners or Southerners, would have ever duplicated elsewhere." In Black, White & Olive Drab, historian Andrew Myers puts this notion to the test, wondering "What effect, if any, did armed forces integration have in the area around the South Carolina post during the civil rights movement that followed in the fifties and sixties?" Over two hundred pages later, the answer to this seems to be "not much." [End Page 89]
Myers recounts the indignities African Americans suffered on and off post as black soldiers and civilians endured the discriminatory practices and physical assaults of local and military authorities. In the late 1940s, Columbia's dismal reputation when it came to civil rights played a role in the federal government's decision to close the base. The Korean War prevented this, though, and men and money poured back into the area. With President Truman having issued his executive order desegregating the armed forces two years earlier, the soldiers who arrived in Columbia in September of 1950 trained in integrated units. State political and business leaders publicly endorsed this change, but Myers uncovers a series of potentially explosive events, including the savage beating of a black nineteen-year-old soldier that left the young man partially paralyzed. Local civil rights leaders condemned the attack, but knew from past experience that such protests usually fell on deaf ears.
Once to this point, Myers begins a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the impact Fort Jackson had on local battles concerning public transportation, school desegregation, housing discrimination, sit-ins, and the Vietnam anti-war movement. In each case, he finds that events at the Fort had no appreciable affect on developments in the surrounding area. When it came to school desegregation for instance, Myers decides that "the military played a ubiquitous, but not a leading role," adding a few lines later that "institutionally, however, the armed forces had very little influence." Not until the 1970s did Fort Jackson begin to affect "the racial practices of its civilian neighbors" but even then, change in Columbia and the rest of South Carolina stemmed primarily from the increased political clout of African American voters.
In his introduction, Myers suggests that "Columbia's unusually close relationship with Fort Jackson makes finding a link between military and civilian racial practices more likely than elsewhere." To his credit, Myers does not push this claim further than his reading of the evidence allows. The result is a book that shifts between informative, detailed analysis of events at Fort Jackson and fairly standard retellings of familiar events from the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina.
Myers concludes that "the most important moral to come from the story of Fort Jackson is that individuals can and did make a difference." While this rings true, it remains unclear where Fort Jackson fits into this emphasis on individual actors. For example, attorneys Matthew Perry and Lincoln Jenkins played key roles in the South Carolina Civil Rights Movement, but other than noting that both men passed through Fort Jackson at some point in their lives, Myers makes little attempt to connect their military service to their lifelong commitment to social justice.
Despite the importance Meyers accords the actions of individuals in...