SAN JOSE, May 20, 2016 — In February of 1946, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, a young black veteran named Isaac Woodard Jr., a former sergeant in the United States’ Army, was travelling home after serving his country in World War II. En route, Sergeant Woodard was forcibly removed from a Greyhound bus by police in South Carolina, and beaten so badly that he lost his vision for the rest of his life.
Woodard had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and had been honorably discharged after returning to the states. He was simply going home to his family, but after this incident was never the same. This tragic tale was one that touched off a great deal of indignation throughout the United States after the war.
Isaac Woodard’s story was recounted again and again in the media in the northern cities, but it was not considered newsworthy in the deep South. According to Woodard’s court testimony, he had been punched in the face and repeatedly beaten with nightsticks. He stated that he was repeatedly jabbed in his eyes with a billy club. He had been beaten so badly in the head that the following day, he awoke blind, and had temporarily lost his memory.
Similar stories of beatings of returning black veterans with tragic outcomes trickled out of the South during this time, and when the President of the United States became aware of such accounts of such vicious racist atrocities, he was appalled.
Historians have revealed that when an old friend wrote to President Harry Truman at the time, appealing to him as a fellow Southerner, to go “easy” on civil rights, the President’s return comments included:
When a mayor and a City Marshall can take a Negro Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out one of his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State Authorities, something is really radically wrong with the system…
Isaac Woodward’s tragedy in particular had caught the president’s attention, and near year’s end, on December 5, 1946, Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9808. This executive action established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR). This Committee was an effort aimed at proactively addressing the exploding problems of violent racism in post-war America.
By October 1947, the Committee published To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The report proposed, among a number of remedies, the establishment of a permanent Civil Rights Commission, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, a Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and an effort to develop federal protection from lynching, as well as the abolition of poll taxes.
By July 26, 1948, only a few months before the presidential election, President Truman acted on the recommendations of the Commission and signed executive orders 9980 and 9981 that ended segregation in the federal work force and ended segregation in the U.S. armed services.
Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces was definitely a serious political risk, and especially within his own Democratic Party, there seemed to be an attempt to disown him. In reality, even his own mother and wife were against the extremely controversial move of the integration of the military. Many Democrat advisors promised to offer support in the election if only he would back off of his desegregation efforts. Harry Truman remained adamant and stood his ground:
My forebears were Confederates… Every factor and influence in my background — and in my wife’s for that matter – would foster the personal belief that you are right.
But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.
Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.
More broadly during this period, President Truman also challenged Congress to help reorganize the branches of the military to be more efficient and effective. The serious deliberations of both houses resulted in the sweeping initiatives of the National Security Act of 1947. This legislation ultimately brought four major branches of the U.S. military initially under the National Military Establishment. Additionally, the Act also reorganized the Army Air Corps into the new branch of the U.S. Air Force and created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council among other security-based organizations. Eventually, with the 1949 amendment to the National Security Act, the NME was renamed the Department of Defense.
Underlying such changes to the armed forces, President Truman was also serious about addressing the lack of appreciation and respect for the returning veterans, as well as an appreciation for the value of the U.S. military as a whole. Truman determined to consolidate the various holidays supporting each separate branch of the military into a simple unified holiday to honor the four branches together. The actual initiation of this day occurred on August 31, 1949, when Truman’s Secretary of State announced the establishment of a joint Armed Forces Appreciation Day to take the place of the former tradition of having separate days to honor the men and women in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and the new Air Force.
The newly created Armed Forces Appreciation Day was to be commemorated on the third Saturday each May, and the following year, the initial Armed Forces Appreciation Day was celebrated on May 20, 1950. The theme on that Saturday was designated “Teamed for Defense,” which was consistent with Harry Truman’s vision of creating a more unified department of national defense with the dual purpose of eliminating the inter-departmental rivalry and conflicts among the military branches and eliminating duplication of effort and wasteful spending practices.
The new Department of Defense explained that Armed Forces Day was intended to help the American people better understand the function and role of the military, but the essential intent was to enable public recognition and appreciation of the military and to provide a means for the public to thank men and women in uniform for their service to their country. It is fitting and proper to do this: to thank men and women in uniform (regardless of their race or ethnic origins) for their service to their country.
Since the days of September 11, 2001, the American people have been reminded again and again that the world is a very dangerous place – and even now the United States is viewed as an increasingly dangerous place. Many Americans realize that it is the U.S. military that may be one of the major factors that can keep the chaotic and destructive forces of the world in check, or at least to keep citizens protected from the imminent danger from the nation’s enemies.
Years after the American Revolution, someone was quoted as saying that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Especially in the world today, freedom must be guarded by those who keep the vigil. As one considers this, the most vigilant of the vigil keepers are America’s men and women in uniform. When they swear the oath to serve and protect the Constitution and the nation, they know that they may be called upon to offer their lives. Essentially, this is the best that America has to offer as freedom is challenged: those willing to lay down their lives for the sake of others.
Harry Truman wanted a reorganized military for the protection of America and the preservation of America’s values, and to be ready to defend the nation, or to defend the friends of freedom when needed. The peril in the world was not imagined then, nor is it imagined now. Ultimately, it is those vigil keepers who may be called upon to offer the greatest of all sacrifices for the sake of others, or for the higher ideals of freedom.
Americans have been called to action again and again to help the free world fight against tyranny. The very least the nation can offer in return is genuine gratitude toward the men and women could be called upon to throw themselves into the divide between liberty and tyranny.
May God bless America’s veteran’s, and all men and women in uniform on Armed Forces’ Day!