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National Guard Bureau Director of Space Operations' remarks Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Armed Forces Integration

23-007 | July 28, 2023

Maj. Gen. Edward Vaughan, Director of Space Operations for the National Guard Bureau, delivered these remarks on July 26, 2023, at The Great Gathering in Montgomery, Alabama in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of President Truman's Executive Order Integrating the Armed Forces.


Good morning, Mayor Reed, World War II Private Romay Davis - truly an American hero, distinguished visitors, ladies and gentlemen. We've had a tremendous welcome by the people of Montgomery. The last time I was in this theater, I was sitting somewhere over there, and my 4- year-old daughter, Mai, was up on this stage performing with her ballet class. Now to the task at hand.

What does victory mean? And what can any of us do to help achieve it? While not all of us are called into the spotlight or will have that one opportunity to face down the enemy, each of us should be prepared, as a minimum, to serve as a catalyst. Do the right thing, however small, to inspire others to do the right thing. And after a while, all those little right things add up to something big. So, I'll spend the next few minutes speaking my truth to suggest that each of us individually has a role to play as catalysts for victory.

So, what is victory? As military members, we swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. As a military general, a senior leader, it is my sacred duty to honor that oath by focusing on warfighting and ensuring the readiness of our forces to fight and defend our nation. One thing history has shown us is that if we want victory, to preserve and improve our way of life, we need to come together as a united force.

Seventy-five years ago today, President Harry Truman understood that … as he signed Executive Order 9981, the order mandating the desegregation of the U.S. military. This was not only the right thing to do, but it also forever set the conditions for enhancing the defense and security of the United States. The first point in the executive order states, "…there shall be equality of treatment and OPPORTUNITY for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

According to the National Park Service, Truman's order received pushback from politicians, generals, and friends, who opposed an integrated military. Wait… generals? American generals were on record opposing an integrated military. I'll come back to that. President Truman wrote in response to these detractors, "I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings, and as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight."

[Further from NPS], W. Stuart Symington, the first Secretary of the Air Force, supported President Truman's initiative, which resulted in the Air Force being the first fully integrated branch of the military. According to Ebony magazine, The Air Force's desegregation measures represented the "swiftest and most amazing upset of racial policy in the history of the U.S. military." At many bases in the South, the Air Force ignored local segregation laws and began operating integrated housing, schools, stores, and recreation facilities for the airmen and their families.

Maxwell Air Force Base, here in Montgomery, recently commanded by one of my heroes, Col. Eries Mentzer, sitting in the front row, was among those bases to move out early on the order of the Commander in Chief.

Around that time, a young African American couple living in Montgomery, Raymond and Rosa Parks, found employment at Maxwell. Rosa, who worked as a seamstress at base lodging, and her husband, Raymond, who worked at the military barbershop, experienced integrated public spaces and transportation while just outside the gate they suffered segregation in the local community. In her memoir, Parks stated, "You might just say Maxwell opened my eyes up. It was an alternative to the ugly policies of Jim Crow."

On Dec. 1, 1955, just seven and a half years after executive order 9981, Parks was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a White man. Within a week, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black citizens of Montgomery organized the now-famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year until Montgomery's segregation laws were challenged in a federal court and struck down as violations of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause. The city was forced to desegregate its bus system.

Parks, who became known as "the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," was among the first to ride the newly desegregated bus system as the Civil Rights movement launched in earnest. She did the right thing, in part catalyzed by executive order 9981.

Now fast forward to yesterday, also not too far from here, many of us had the pleasure to hear the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force speak. Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown is the first African American officer to lead any military service. That's remarkable. Should the full Senate vote to confirm his nomination as the 21st Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however… he will NOT be the first African American in that role. Gen Colin Powell took care of that. Not being the first is also remarkable.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." Gen Brown's nomination as Chairman can serve as evidence of forward progress beyond that one first step. More right things being done.

What struck me most from Gen Brown's uplifting speech, aside from his commitment to preparing for the warfight and defending this nation, was his framing of two concepts… Perseverance and Opportunity.

I say concepts because in two words, Gen. Brown offered a strategy with a plan, including roles and responsibilities for individuals and the organization. Perseverance is what we are charged to do on an individual level. That is part of our sacred duty and how we can each serve as a catalyst. What can we as individuals do to continue the work of EO 9981? We can persevere in doing what we believe is right. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, "If you can't fly, then run - If you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, crawl, but keep moving forward!"

Of course, we can take a pause, a rest, or as my good friend Capt. Isiah Hines might say, we could take a cultural R&R to recharge our battery… but we don't quit. Ever.

The other concept, Opportunity, is a task for the organization. We've heard that word a lot over the past couple of days. EO 9981 uses the word opportunity. Equal opportunity under the law is fundamental to the American way of life. So how do we enhance opportunity? Since an organization is more than its buildings and policies and practices-- it is the people-- that means we have another task. This time collectively. Together we must take guarantee through our actions these opportunities by holding the organization accountable. Since organizations are just a bigger version of us, this is something we can do if we decide together to do it. By acting within our legal authority to remove barriers and catalyze change, we grow opportunities which enables the organization to improve.

Gen. Brown also previously charged the organization to "Accelerate Change or Lose." This is not only about hardware and tactics but also about people. In that respect, the Chief is conveying that victory is within our grasp, if only we can achieve the speed and direction to reach it.

According to historic accounts, the Isaac Woodard incident took place in February 1946 when Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard was honorably discharged from the service and headed home to South Carolina to reunite with his wife. During a stopover in Batesburg, Woodard was taken off the bus by the local police chief, Lynwood Shull, after a disagreement between them. The altercation that followed resulted in Woodard being severely beaten and blinded by Shull, leaving him permanently disabled.

Despite witnesses denying Woodard's intoxication and asserting that he had not been drinking, the police chief claimed otherwise. Woodard was charged with disorderly conduct and paid a fine before being taken to a veterans' hospital in Columbia. Doctors informed him that he would never see again and advised him to consider enrolling in a school for the blind.

President Harry S. Truman, unsatisfied with South Carolina's handling of the case, ordered a federal investigation. The sheriff who had assaulted Woodard was indicted and went to trial in federal court in South Carolina. However, he was ultimately acquitted by an all-white jury, highlighting the racial biases prevalent at the time. This incident played a significant role in shaping Truman's civil rights initiatives and commitment to fighting discrimination.

Story about Isaac Woodard

It's not the place of an active duty general to comment on political matters. Lately, what we teach our children has taken on a political tone, so I won't go there. However, if American generals in the 1940s can oppose an executive order, maybe I can simply recommend we include some factual military history in our kids' education. And that we especially need to teach future generations that America has never fought a war without African American soldiers, including all the wars before EO 9981. EO 9981 simply ensured we would be a far more innovative, cohesive, and effective lethal fighting force.

I offer the following as a very surface-level overview of some of the American history I was never taught in public school that we might consider including now.

According to the 1997 documentary "Liberty, the American Revolution," starting with the American Revolution, many African Americans, both enslaved and free, wanted to join with the Patriots. It is commonly understood that they believed that they would achieve freedom or expand their civil rights by doing so. Also, according to the American Battlefield Trust, to fill their Continental Army quotas, New England states began allowing enslaved people to enlist, in return, they were promised their freedom for their service. According to a piece by Robert Selig [on American Revolution website], during the war, about one-fifth of the men in the northern army were Black. At the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, Baron Closen, a German officer in the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment, estimated about one-quarter of the American army to be Black men. Sadly, [according to the Colonial Williamsburg official website], many of the enslaved people permitted to enlist in the war with promises of freedom, were put back into slavery after the conclusion of the war.

In the Civil War, African Americans fought and secured victory for the Union. [In a piece by Dr. Paul-Thomas Ferguson, Joint Munitions Command published by the U.S. Army], by the end of the Civil War, there were 175 African American regiments containing 178,000 soldiers, approximately 10% of the Union Army. In the process, sixteen African American soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their Civil War service.

According to the National Archives, more than 380,000 African Americans served in the Army during World War I, including the 369th Infantry, the famed "Harlem Hellfighters", and the 370th Infantry Regiment, who the Germans called the "Black Devils", and many others in land, sea, and air.

A mere two decades later, more than one million African American men and women served in every branch of the U.S. armed forces during World War II, including the famed 92d Infantry Division, the legendary "Buffalo Soldiers," and Alabama's own "Red Tails," the Tuskegee Airmen. That represents just the tip of the iceberg of the rich history of African American combat contributions to the defense of our nation before EO 9981.

After EO 9981, as military integration started to take hold, we enjoyed better battlefield operation and unprecedented decades of peace in our homeland. The deterrence effect of an integrated joint force, even if imperfect, was well documented. At the junior enlisted level, our military is reflective of our greater American society as a whole. However, that reflection fades as the rank structure increases, and so we still have much work to do - the need for perseverance to ensure better opportunity of advancement and promotion for all.

While Executive Order 9981 was a great start that catalyzed much more progress. The order itself did not desegregate the military. That was done by men and women of conviction, like you in this theater… slowly, with gains and retreats, and gradual acceptance. It also did not end discrimination or racism, which remains a work in progress. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Others have added that the bending of the arc isn't a divine destiny but rather a function of our work… once again, our perseverance.

Back to Catalyzing Victory. In the face of potential major state-on-state wars, it is crucial that we have a military force that is united, resilient, and ready to face any challenge. By ensuring that every service member feels valued and included, we instill a sense of loyalty, dedication, and motivation. When individuals know that their contributions are recognized and respected, they wholeheartedly invest themselves in their roles. This heightened level of commitment directly translates into increased readiness, as each member is primed to give their absolute best.

But the benefits go beyond readiness alone. A diverse and inclusive military also boosts our deterrence capabilities, reducing the long-term risk of major wars. By demonstrating that we value and respect every individual, regardless of their background, we send a powerful message to potential adversaries that they face a daunting defense. We show that we are a force united, committed to upholding justice and determined to safeguard our shared values.

This unity and resolve serve as a strong deterrent, dissuading most thoughts of aggression or conflict. To be victorious in the next war, we need to act now. To that point, I offer three specific actions we might take as individuals to be Catalysts for Victory.

  1. Tell your story by speaking your truth. To be that catalyst for victory, we need to hear your story, your journey, your adversity and your small win. We all need to bring clarity to ignorance.
  2. Meet fear with love. - people are often motivated by either fear or love. Sometimes, when we presume our fellow American is filled with hate, underneath it is just fear. If we meet that fear with patience and love, we might have a chance to find common ground.
  3. Understand and master yourself first. Gandhi said, "be the change you wish to see in the world." It rings hollow to ask of others what we aren't willing to do for ourselves. By disciplining oneself, and doing the hard work, we are in a much better position to take advantage of opportunity and then together create further opportunities for others.

I'll leave you with a quote that exemplifies the idea of Catalyst for Victory. GEN Norman Schwarzkopf said, "You should never forget that the airplanes don't fly, the tanks don't run, the ships don't sail, the missiles don't fire unless the sons and daughters of America make them do it."

Today's task is to pave the way in the present by serving as a catalyst for victory for our sons and daughters and their sons and daughters in the future.