In the long and often controversial history of Executive Orders, two stand out for their importance to American warfare and social justice: the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and Executive Order 9981 (EO9981), issued by President Harry S Truman on July 26, 1948 to desegregate the United States military. Although the wars Lincoln and Truman prosecuted had obvious dissimilarities, questions of how to honor the military service of African Americans and provide for their rights more broadly were central to both. Though issued nearly a century apart, the Executive Orders speaking to those questions highlight the longstanding important relationship in wartime among the military, executive authority, and grassroots political mobilization in pursuit of racial equality.
Both the Emancipation Proclamation and EO9981 grew out of African Americans’ long and storied history in the American military. Black soldiers had fought and died for the United States dating back to the Revolutionary era, and some black enslaved veterans of America’s early conflicts with the British did receive freedom as reward for their service, but the connection between military service and citizenship remained tenuous until the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation began to clarify that connection by stating that black “persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
Sanctioning the growing practice among some Union commanders to arm contrabands in their camps and use them as soldiers rather than merely as laborers, Lincoln’s order thus gave formal recognition to the relationship between freedom and fighting that abolitionists like Frederick Douglass had been insisting upon for years. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass proclaimed at a recruitment rally in 1862, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”
Harry Truman was similarly prompted to solidify the link between military service and citizenship by desires to recognize the contributions of black soldiers during the World Wars of the twentieth century and to ensure their continued loyalty should the Cold War turn hot. The “Double V” campaign among black journalists explicitly tied the fight against fascism abroad to the black struggle at home against “aggression, slavery, and tyranny,” including segregation within the military itself. Some black troops had fought alongside white troops in units that were effectively racially mixed during World War II, most notably at the Battle of the Bulge, but official army policy followed the customs of Jim Crow.
This proved a bitter pill to swallow, not only for the soldiers’ themselves but also for activists like A. Philip Randolph who, as early as 1941, made the integration of the military a goal of the modern civil rights movement during the first March on Washington. After the war, Randolph not only appealed to Truman’s sense of justice by pointing to the valiant efforts of black soldiers against the Nazis, but he also invoked the prospect of black Americans withdrawing their allegiance should the government continue to neglect those who had served it so well.
At a meeting with President Truman in March 1948, Randolph asserted that “[n]egroes are in no mood to shoulder a gun for democracy abroad so long as they are denied democracy here at home.” Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee that year about black support for a selective service bill, meanwhile, Randolph said that he would advise massive resistance and civil disobedience should black men be faced with compulsory induction into an army that discriminated against them. “This time Negroes will not take the Jim Crow laws lying down,” he told the Committee. “The conscience of the world will be shaken as by nothing else when thousands and thousands of us second-class Americans choose imprisonment in preference to permanent military slavery.”
Neither executive order completely satisfied those who advocated for them. Lincoln’s decision to exempt slaves in the Border States and in Union-occupied areas of the South from the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation frustrated those who wanted an unequivocal abolition of slavery. Likewise, Truman’s order neglected to provide a definite timetable for desegregation to occur, and in fact, the army’s last segregated units were not dissolved until 1954.
Both orders reflected the slow journeys of presidents who struggled with the politics of racial justice. Just as Lincoln had done in 1863, Truman presented EO9981 as a military necessity justified by his position as Commander-in-Chief. Yet both men were guided by their innate sense of fairness and a belief that slavery and segregation, respectively, were wrong. In the closing lines of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln described the order as “an act of justice,” and in the preamble to EO9981, Truman held that the armed services of the United States must be held to “the highest standards of democracy.” Tying the practical matters of military operations to loftier ideas of justice and democracy, Lincoln and Truman acknowledged that the military represented not only the nation’s sword but also its heart.
Yet ultimately it was black activists like Douglass and Randolph, as well as the hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors who pressed their claims for citizenship, who laid the political foundations for these executive orders. While they are often characterized as “unilateral” actions that reflect a president’s tyrannical disposition, the broader stories of the Emancipation Proclamation and EO 9981 reveal the many players involved in bringing about an executive order, not least of which are American citizens themselves. Instead of being relics of Old World despotism, executive orders can be invaluable tools for democratic change.