'Foxholes & Color Lines': The bar falls

March 22, 1998|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,SUN STAFF

"Foxholes & Color Lines," by Sherie Mershon and Steven Schlossman. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 376 pages. $34.95.

A World War II veteran I know tells the story of his service as an officer in the Quartermaster Corps. The laundry unit he commanded not only never did laundry, it was never even supplied detergent. The reason becomes clearer in a wonderful new book chronicling what it used to be like to be black and in the Army, and why it's not like that today.

In "Foxholes & Color Lines," Carnegie Mellon University history professors Sherie Mershon and Steven Schlossman point out that by World War II, segregation in the American military had become so pernicious that racist generals preferred to have black servicemen sit idle than put them into battle alongside white troops who needed reinforcements.

It wasn't always that way. Blacks had fought bravely as soldiers and sailors in almost every American war since the Revolution; even during the period between 1783 and the Civil War, when military regulations limited service to whites. But the white supremacy backlash that manifested itself in so many ways at the end of Reconstruction touched the military as well.

Four traditionally black combat units with roots to the Civil War - the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments and the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments - were excluded from American forces sent to Europe during World War I.

In the 1930s, the Marines and Army Air Corps ignored black applicants and any black person joining the Navy was almost guaranteed to be sent to the Stewards Branch to become a cook or valet.

Mershon and Schlossman detail the changes that began with desegregation experiments during World War II and climaxed with President Truman's Executive Order 9981, which in 1948 officially integrated the armed services.

At first, the military establishment used ontological arguments to resist integration, claiming blacks made poor soldiers and sailors because, as one Navy officer in 1932 put it, "the negro is lazy, slow thinking and slow acting."

The valor of blacks in combat eventually eroded such views. But the military then resorted to sociological excuses, claiming the fights that would occur if blacks and whites served together would endanger military operations.

In straightforward, easily digestible prose, Mershon and Schlossman explain how a convergence of political and military leadership dispelled the myths, misconceptions and outright lies about integration.

The authors say the military successfully desegregated by addressing behavior rather than attitudes. It ordered people to work together, and when they did their attitudes changed.

This book is invaluable as armed-forces history. It examines the role the civil rights movement played in desegregating the military by making black voters a factor in presidential politics.

Its only shortcoming may be that "Foxholes & Color Lines" does not explore the reason that Mershon and Schlossman say they got involved in this topic in the first place - comparing the military's former bias against blacks to what happens to homosexuals in the services today.

Harold Jackson came to The Sun in 1994 as a reporter. Eight months later he became an editorial writer. Before working at The Sun he was a reporter at the Birmingham Post-Herald and has written and edited for United Press International, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Birmingham News, where in 1991 he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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