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Equal opportunity for all: The 72-year legacy of Executive Orders 9980 and 9981

With two strokes of his pen, President Harry S. Truman ended racial segregation in the U.S. Government on July 26, 1948 — both the federal workforce and in the armed services — changing the racial landscape across the nation.

By signing those two documents 72-years ago, Executive Orders 8890 and 8891 respectively, Truman bypassed Congress — which had blocked his efforts to bring about racial equity in the government — and used his executive powers to make segregation illegal across the federal workforce.

“This is an anniversary worth noting because it was the first domino to fall, putting our military on a path towards ensuring that we reflect and are inclusive of the American people we have sworn to protect and defend,” said Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, Jr., the Navy’s top uniformed personnel official. “Our armed forces have often led on these issues throughout history, and we need to celebrate that.”

The Navy’s continuing response

Today, the Navy is still working to eliminate lingering racial bias in the Navy. With the advent of Task Force One Navy, Vice Adm. Nowell said the service would “continue our efforts to identify barriers that may negatively affect equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels in our Navy.”

Like the previous executive orders, the task force’s mandate spans the Navy’s total force of both military and civilians.

“Decades from now,” he said, “I’m confident its recommendations will be considered the next milestone in creating equal opportunity for all.”

Today, Black Americans make up 17 percent of the Navy. That’s a significant number given the fact that in 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Black Americans made up only 13.4 percent of the country’s population.

Except for the years from the end of World War I through the end of World War II, for the most part, black and white Sailors have always lived, worked, fought and died together at sea. There was no segregation or limiting of black Sailors to specific career fields or ratings, according to Lt. Dennis Nelson — one of the first black officers commissioned in the Navy.

Nelson wrote in-depth on the topic in his doctoral thesis, ‘The Integration of the Negro into the United States Navy, 1776-1947’, a work that was widely acclaimed when the Navy officially published it in 1948, just months before Truman signed his executive orders.

During the Revolutionary War, according to Dr. John Sherwood, author of “Black Sailor, White Navy” and historian at the Navy History and Heritage Command, black Sailors made up roughly 10 percent of the service. That percentage rose during the Civil War to between 17 and 20 percent.

Segregation during the World Wars

It wasn’t until World War I and through the early years of World War II that the Navy actively engaged in racial segregation policies among crews. The Navy limited Black Americans and other racial minorities to serving only in the ratings that involved mess duty, according to Nelson.

“From Revolutionary War days and until the latter years of World War I, the United States Navy had no definite policy of separation and segregation as had the Army,” Nelson wrote. “Negros, though in a slave status — up and through the Civil War period — served in all ratings. This practice held until the early 20th Century.”

The change, Nelson wrote, was brought on by “rabid racialism of Southern whites in the services and the influence and attitudes of white supremacy and intolerance exerted by rabble-rousing civilians.”

At the beginning of World War II, and as the numbers of Black Americans in the service increased, the Navy at first maintained segregated units ashore and even experimented with several ships crewed by all black enlisted led by white officers. None of these proved to be workable solutions.

Gradually during the war, Nelson wrote, the Navy started slowly to move progressively towards “development of the Negro into full Naval service participation” and began training Black Americans in all career fields.

“Through a series of directives,” Nelson wrote, the Navy “gravitated into a definite and stated policy of complete integration — from a policy of complete segregation and discrimination.” Though the change started, he noted, “with all the earmarks of the usual ideological platitudes,” it turned into “a practical and workable plan for the present and future treatment” of Black Americans in the Navy.

Nelson’s favorable appraisal of that Navy policy in his thesis was written a year before Truman’s edict. The work was endorsed by then Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Thomas L. Sprague as being a “fair and valid” appraisal of the Navy’s policies in the publication’s forward.

Even the New York Times chimed in on Feb. 8, 1948, in a review of Nelson’s work that, “the fact that the Navy Department has published a critical analysis of its segregation policies by its only Negro officer is an indication of a changing attitude in that tight-knit officer corps.”

Segregation policies in all the military branches, the Times wrote, deprived them of “the services of men they cannot afford, in time of crisis, to get along without.” Prejudice, the Times concluded, has no place in the military.

“A man’s courage and capabilities cannot be, and should not be, judged on the color of his skin,” the review said. “It is encouraging to see a growing realization of this truth.”

Despite this fantastic start, the numbers of Black Americans in the Navy decreased during the Cold War that followed World War II.

“One would have thought that the Navy would have rapidly integrated its force,” Navy historian Sherwood said. By 1962 — sort of the middle of the Cold War — only 5 percent of the Navy was black and just .2 percent of the officer corps.

For comparison, he said, by this time, the Army’s Black American population had become 12.2 percent of its force and 3.2 percent of the officer corps. The Navy’s low numbers throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s were because of the draft.

“When you have a draft, the Navy becomes very, very desirable for all races,” Sherwood noted.

Zumwalt’s effect on equal opportunity

Because many wanted to avoid serving as ground forces in Vietnam, the Navy decided to up its enlistment standards, taking only those who scored the highest on military entrance exams. This practice disadvantaged many Americans who didn’t have the academic backgrounds to score well.

The draft ended in the early 1970s, and so did the Navy’s recruiting hey-day. With recruiters struggling to make their quotas, the Navy started enlisting lower-scoring Sailors into the ranks. Though this opened up the door for more Black Americans, they qualified for fewer career fields in the Navy. As a result, the number of black Sailors in shipboard deck departments, foodservice and laundry divisions swelled.

“If you score low on the tests, regardless of race, not only do you end up in a certain assignment, but you cannot get into A-Schools, either,” Sherwood said. “Therefore, you cannot get promoted in many cases.”

This dynamic led to unrest in the ranks and, in some cases, riots on a few Navy ships, Sherwood said. At the root was this de-facto discrimination in job selection. Also, black Sailors had few role models and advocates from their race in their chain of command. They saw white Sailors getting the “good jobs,” Sherwood said.

Also, there were few, if any, “African-Americans in middle management roles,” these Sailors could “share their problems with,” Sherwood said.

Again, the Navy needed to change. The watershed moment was the appointment of Adm. Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt as the Chief of Naval Operations. Just 49 years old at his selection, he became the youngest CNO in Navy history. A three-star at the time of his appointment in 1970, he was selected over many officer’s senior to him.

Zumwalt hit the Navy like a ton of bricks, working to reform and rebuild the service as it came out of the Vietnam War. He was known for issuing “Z-Grams,” his version of NAVADMIN messages of today, in his attempt to fix what he saw wrong in the Navy.

Five months into his tour as CNO, Zumwalt put the Navy back on the path to equal opportunity with “Z-Gram #66” entitled “Equal Opportunity in the Navy.”

The message came shortly after meeting with both black officers and enlisted Sailors.

“Before these meetings, I was convinced that compared with the civilian community, we had relatively few racial problems in the Navy,” Zumwalt wrote. “I have discovered that I was wrong--we do have problems.”

What struck Zumwalt the most, he wrote, was the “depth of feeling of our black personnel that there is significant discrimination in the Navy” and that he “did not realize the extent and deep significance of many of these matters.”

Zumwalt sought to open up communications. He created command minority affairs teams to “learn what and where the areas of friction are” and to help the Navy “develop a far greater sensitivity to the problems of all our minority groups so that we may more effectively go about solving them.” However, he admitted that “much remains to be done.”

The Navy has done much to level the playing field for those entering the Navy. Starting in the 1970s, the Navy has offered academic skills classes to help all Sailors raise their entry test scores to qualify for more career fields.

With his efforts, racial tensions declined gradually in the Navy for the rest of the 1970s and ‘80s. However, because the Navy is a reflection of society, it remains with us today.

“We’re headed in the right direction, but I think it’s okay, and even healthy, to take a brief moment to look in the rearview mirror, mark this important event in history, and reflect on how far we have come over the past 72 years,” Nowell said. “In my view, that also helps us tackle the challenges of today and the future.”