Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Desegregating the Military

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Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Harry S. Truman, the country’s only president from Missouri, is largely known for his leadership through the end of World War II. However, a decision Truman made nearly three years after the war ended proved to be a major milestone in the fight for racial equality.

Born in Lamar in 1884, Truman spent most of his childhood in Independence before moving to Kansas City. He worked on the family farm, rose to the rank of colonel in the Missouri National Guard and operated a men’s clothing store before beginning his political career as a judge in the Jackson County Court in 1922. Eventually, Truman was elected to the United States Senate where he gained national recognition.

In 1944, Truman was nominated to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate in his bid to be reelected to a fourth term. The following year – just 82 days into his term as vice president – Truman assumed the office of president following Roosevelt’s unexpected death.

Foreign policy was a focus of Truman’s presidency. He oversaw the United States’ involvement during the final months of World War II, and he took action to prevent the spread of communism through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Truman’s domestic policies included expanding social programs that were established under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Truman also took a significant step toward racial integration in the U.S. Outraged by the treatment of Black soldiers and veterans when they returned home from World War II, he issued an executive order that officially desegregated the U.S. military. The order stated, “It is 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.”

It was the first time a U.S. president used an executive order to implement a civil rights policy and is considered by some to be the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Truman overcame his own deeply imbedded prejudices against other races to help create an environment that would be fair to all citizens – regardless of race. He became an early champion of civil rights and was the first president to speak at the NAACP’s annual convention.

Truman also issued an executive order that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in federal employment practices.

Learn more about Truman’s efforts to advance civil rights at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. A major renovation of the library and museum, including all new interactive exhibits about Truman’s life and presidency, was completed in 2021.