Protecting the Rights of Black Americans in the Armed Forces

In recognition of Black History Month, this edition of TMI Briefs highlights challenges faced by Black Americans in the armed forces and several of the legal battles fought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) in the mid-20th century to defend Black soldiers and ensure that they received equal rights and fair treatment.  
 Largest Murder Trial in the History of the United States. Scene during Court Martial of 64 members of the 24th Infantry United States of America on trial for mutiny and murder of 17 people at Houston, Texas August 23, 1917, via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Throughout American history, Black members of the military have played a critical role in advancing and defending our freedoms. In fact, Black Americans have been on the front lines in every war the U.S. has ever fought.[1] But since before the Civil War, Black servicemembers have been particular targets of discrimination, violence, lynching, court martials, and capital punishment.[2]  The presence of Black veterans in uniform, trained in the art of war, worldly from their travels, and with a sense of pride, dignity, and resistance posed an obvious threat to the American racial caste system designed to keep Black people in a subordinate role. Black veterans returning from World Wars I and II were commonly victims of racial discrimination and violence, including life threatening beatings, such as the blinding of former U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodward who was beaten by police just hours after his honorable discharge from the Army, and lynching, which occurred with disturbing frequency.[3] In 1917, members of the all-Black 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment faced mass court martials in Texas for alleged participation in a riot that turned deadly stemming from police brutality against a Black woman.[4] After quick convictions in trials with no public access or review by the War Department, 13 or more Black soldiers were executed by hanging and, reportedly, more than 60 received life sentences.[5] 
Federal policies and actions have repeatedly denied Black servicemembers the full enjoyment of the rights to which they are entitled as citizens of this nation. Up until the mid-20th century, Black patriots were forced to serve in segregated units,[6] relegated to unskilled support roles,[7] and at times outright banned from enlisting.[8] Less than 80 years ago, the federal government justified its discrimination by claiming that allowing Black servicemembers to serve alongside whites “would produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparation for national defense.[9]
Black veterans have also faced discrimination by the federal government. For example, through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill of Rights, the government spent more than $95 billion to aid veterans returning from World War II in the transition to civilian life.[10] But thousands of Black veterans were excluded from the benefits of the bill and were denied access to whites-only colleges and universities, job training and placement programs, and housing and business loans.[11]  

Port Chicago (1944) 

The navy defense team sits in front of the fifty accused black stevedores during the trial on Yerba Buena Island in 1944. (Fairfield-Suisun City Daily Republic, McNaughton Newspapers, Inc.)
Even through the mid-20th century, Black members of the military were almost always made to perform difficult, dangerous, and humiliating duties as part of their service. One of the most heinous examples is the explosion at Port Chicago, California on July 17, 1944. The explosion, which resulted from the loading and handling of live munitions (bombs with live fuses, which soldiers were told were not armed), registered a 3.4 on the Richter Scale and killed 202 Black soldiers.[12] When work recommenced at nearby Mare Island Naval Depot in August 1944, a group of 50 Black soldiers refused commands to load munitions. This refusal was characterized as “mutinous” by the U.S. Navy. What came next was the largest court martial in U.S. history as all 50 soldiers were put on trial a month after the explosion.[13] News of the explosion and the impending trial quickly spread, and Joseph James, President of the local NAACP branch, placed an urgent phone call to LDF requesting legal assistance for the soldiers. LDF’s Founder and first Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall was sent to observe the trial. Marshall spent two weeks interviewing the men and reviewing the evidence in the case. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy Fact Finding Board deliberated only 45 minutes before finding the soldiers guilty of mutiny.
Thurgood Marshall’s Trial Observations
Read Thurgood Marshall’s official statement to the press after observing the trial. 
Although the initial verdict was not in favor of the “Port Chicago 50” as they would be known, Marshall continued to advocate for the men by corresponding directly with then-Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal. Secretary Forrestal would eventually reduce the soldiers’ sentences, return them to active duty, and give them honorable discharges after they had completed their terms of service.
Thank You Letter to Thurgood Marshall from Serviceman Eric Saunders
Read a thank you letter to Thurgood Marshall from serviceman Eric Saunders and a pamphlet produced to raise funds for the soldier’s legal defense. 
After Port Chicago, Marshall and his legal staff would increase their activity regarding the military, attempting to address several grievances on behalf of soldiers and families of servicemen in all branches of the U.S. military. Marshall personally addressed letters to the Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of War, and other high-ranking military officials on numerous issues, including recruitment practices, military police brutality, racial quotas, segregated regiments, and the military’s practice of unfairly and overzealously court martialing Black soldiers. Through his advocacy, Marshall exposed many of the injustices and hardships faced by Black soldiers.


Amidst Marshall’s battle for military integration,[14] President Truman formed the President’s Committee on Civil Rights to study desegregating the military.[15] After several meetings, multiple hearings, and a thorough examination of the available data, the Committee issued a damning assessment: the military’s exclusion of African Americans was “indefensible” and had “cost . . . lives and money in the inefficient use of human resources.[16] The study found that the military had “weaken[ed] our defense” by “preventing entire groups from making their maximum contribution to the national defense.[17] The Committee’s report therefore called for an immediate end to segregation based on “race, color, creed, or national origin, in the organization and activities of all branches of the Armed Services.[18]

Armed with this information, on July 26, 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981.[19] The Order “hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”[20]
Though a clear step in the direction of equal rights and opportunity, Truman’s order was no silver bullet. Many branches of the military fully resisted or decided to integrate on their own time. There were many false starts and failed experiments in the order’s execution. However, in the decades since the order was enacted, Black Americans have successfully served at the military’s highest levels and have received its highest honors.[21]

The Korean War (1951) 

Public Education Handout for Soldiers “What Are Your Rights in the Armed Forces” via LDF Archives
By 1950, relations between the military and civil rights groups had improved to the point that Thurgood Marshall was given carte blanche by then “commander of the far east” General Douglas MacArthur to investigate the 24th infantry in the Eighth Army during the Korean War.[22] Marshall traveled to Korea and Japan to review the record and conduct interviews.[23] This regiment was of interest to Marshall given the large number of courts-martial for the all-Black regiment. In addition, some of the soldiers had contacted the NAACP for assistance. Many of the sentences imposed on Black soldiers were very harsh. Accused soldiers were subject to death sentences, life imprisonment, and anywhere from three to 50 years in prison. For example, there was an account of a soldier who produced two witnesses, both of whom testified that he was in a base hospital the very day that he was accused of being AWOL (absent without leave). Despite this testimony, the soldier was convicted and given life imprisonment.[24] 
Summary of Courts Martial in Korea
Marshall shared accounts of extremely biased trials “in the middle of the night where the men were sentenced to life imprisonment in hearings that lasted less than ten minutes.”[25] Marshall fought on the soldiers’ behalf to get these sentences reduced or to ensure they would be fully acquitted. When Marshall arrived back in the United States, he would report that “[w]hat has happened in Korea is an old, old story—as old as Jim Crow in the armed services. It is a story of the sacrifice of Negro troops upon the altar of segregation.”[26] On December 3, 1951, President Truman signed Executive Order 10308 to strengthen his initial call for the desegregation of the U.S. military and fair treatment of Black Americans in the armed forces.[27] Truman would also remove General MacArthur from his position in 1951. His replacement, General Matthew Ridgeway, actively promoted the desegregation of all units.
Thurgood Marshall’s Korea Report 

Muhammad Ali and the Vietnam War (1970-1971)

After legendary heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali was stripped of his passport and denied a boxing license in every state after refusing to be inducted into the armed forces in 1967, LDF represented him in two cases: Ali v. Division of State Athletic Commission, N.Y.[28] and Clay v. United States.[29] In Division of State Athletic Commission, LDF successfully challenged the decision of the New York State Athletic Commission to deny Ali a license to box in the State of New York based on his refusal to comply with the draft order. In Clay, LDF (along with Ali’s personal attorney Chauncey Eskridge) was successful in overturning Ali’s 1967 criminal conviction for refusing to be inducted into the draft for combat in the Vietnam War. Ali had declared himself a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam.

Ali is escorted from the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston by Lt. Col. J. Edwin McKee, commandant of the station, after Ali refused Army induction.
These cases helped cement Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War and for social justice in the U.S. and overseas. LDF’s first Assistant Counsel Michael Meltsner, who represented Ali in the case that restored his boxing career, said: “When [the NY State Athletic Commission] took away Ali’s right to box in 1967, they claimed it was because he had refused induction in the armed forces. But the state freely licensed felons, including men who had killed, raped and robbed. It was clear that the Athletic Commission sought to punish him because he was an outspoken black man and a member of the Nation of Islam.”[30]
Click here to hear audio of the court proceedings in Clay

*     *     * 

In the United States, “citizenship and eligibility for military service have gone hand in hand.”[31] Yet, the U.S. military openly discriminated against Black servicemembers until the mid-20th century. During this Black History Month, LDF and the Thurgood Marshall Institute honor the efforts of Thurgood Marshall and the organization’s first attorneys in advancing equal rights for our nation’s Black patriots.


[1] See Timeline of Events for African Americans in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020); The Army and Diversity, U.S. Army Ctr. of Military History, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[2] See generally Brief of Amicus Curiae NAACP Legal Def. & Educ. Fund, Inc. in Support of Appellees at 4-11, Karnoski v. Trump, No. 18-35347 (9th Cir. July 3, 2018), (detailing history of discrimination against Black servicemembers from pre-Civil War era through mid-20th century).
[3] Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans, Equal Justice Initiative (2017), (last visited Feb. 18, 2020). See also Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove:  Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012). In 1949, two Black servicemen were among the four young Black men arrested and brutally beaten (one killed) in Lake County, Florida in the tragic Groveland case involving allegations of rape of a white woman. Id. at 132-33. Thurgood Marshall and his lawyers at LDF were successful in getting their convictions and death sentences reversed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Shepherd v. Florida, 341 U.S. 50 (1951). However, shortly thereafter, the two veterans were shot by the local sheriff, and one died. The survivor was reconvicted. Seventy years later, in 2019, the State of Florida apologized and pardoned the four men posthumously. Florida Pardons the Groveland Four, 70 Years After Jim Crow-Era Rape Case, N.Y. Times (Jan. 11, 2019),
[4] See largest Murder Trial in the History of the United States, Schomburg Ctr. for Res. in Black Culture, Photographs & Prints Div., N.Y. Pub. Library Digital Collections, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020); See also James Jeffrey, Remembering the Black Soldiers Executed After Houston’s 1917 Race Riot, PRI (Feb. 1, 2018),; Dec. 11, 1917: Black Soldiers Executed for Houston Riot, Zinn Education Project, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[5] Id. Additional Black soldiers were granted clemency from execution after the NAACP chapter in New York appealed to President Wilson. NAACP Voices from Paris TX, Houston Riot of 1917 (Aug. 23, 2011),
[6] F. Michael Higginbotham, Soldiers for Justice: The Role of the Tuskegee Airmen in the Desegregation of the American Armed Forces, 8 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 273, 277-78 (2000).
[7] Id. at 278.
[8] Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military during the Civil War, U.S. Nat’l Archives & Records Admin., (last reviewed Sept. 1, 2017) (citing Elsie Freeman et al., The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War, Soc. Educ. 56, 118-120 (1992)).
[9] J.S. Leonard, Digest of War Department Policy Pertaining to Negro Military Personnel, Truman Library: Desegregation of the Armed Forces Online Res. File (Jan. 1, 1944),
[10] Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America 113, 139-40 (2005).
[11] Id. at 129-40.
[12] People, Nat’l Park Serv., Port Chicago Naval Magazine, (last updated Feb. 19, 2019).
[13] Long Haul Prods., The Port Chicago 50: An Oral History, KALW (July 17, 2019),; Andrew Gumbel, Port Chicago 50: Kin of Segregated Black Sailors Call on Obama for Exoneration, The Guardian (Oct. 11, 2015),
[14] See generally Rawn James, Jr., The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military 214 (2013).
[15] See Desegregation of the Armed Forces, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[16] To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum 46-47 (1947), (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[17] Id. at 162.
[18] Id.
[19] See Exec. Order No. 9981, 3 C.F.R. § 772 (1941-1948); Executive Order 9981, U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[20] Id.
[21] For example, in 1975, General Roscoe Robinson, Jr. became the first Black four-star General. In 1977, Clifford Alexander, Jr. became the first Secretary of the Army. In 1989, General Colin Powell became the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And last year, Cadet Simone Askew became the first Black woman to receive the highest position in the cadet chain of command. See U.S. Army, supra note 1.
[22] Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965 428-59 (1985).
[23] Id. at 438.
[24] African-Americans in the Korean War, Korean War Legacy Found., (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[25] Marshall Investigates Treatment of Black Soldier in the Korean War, APMreports, (last visited Feb. 11, 2020).
[26] Lu Sun, Battling The Military Jim Crow: Thurgood Marshall and the Racial Politics of the NAACP during the Korean War 2 (July 15, 2014) (unpublished M.A. Thesis, Vanderbilt University) (on file electronically with the Graduate School, Peabody College, and the Jean & Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University), (Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Vanderbilt University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master  of Arts in History).
[27] F. Erik Brooks & Glenn L. Starks, African Americans and the Presidents: Politics and Policies from Washington to Trump 132 (2019).
[28] 316 F. Supp. 1246 (S.D.N.Y. 1970).
[29] 403 U.S. 698 (1971).
[30] Press Release, NAACP Legal Def. & Educ. Fund, Inc., A Tribute to the Life of Muhammad Ali: World Champion Boxer, Outspoken and Courageous Advocate, Global Leader and Former LDF Client (June 4, 2016),
[31] Kenneth L. Karst, The Pursuit of Manhood and the Desegregation of the Armed Forces, 38 UCLA L. Rev. 499, 500 (1991).