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"The Double V" and "The Slaves' Gamble"

Two recent releases chronicle the contentious history of blacks in the US military.

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Blacks, according to many of the those in charge of the American military over the first half of the 20th century, were weak, "peculiarly qualified" for manual labor, and bad for morale if they mingled with whites.

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For better and for worse, African-Americans didn't suffer their humiliation in some sort of saintly silence, although one Navy messman told a reporter that "you've got to know your place at all times." Black leaders and the black press eloquently and persistently pushed for equality. But in Houston during World War I, black soldiers murdered 15 whites in a massacre amid fury over policeman's vicious mistreatment of two blacks. "We are all human," wrote one African-American newspaper, reflecting a sense among some blacks that the killers had their reasons.

More than two decades passed before the next world war, and little changed. Franklin Roosevelt bathed in the support of black voters but, stuck with a racist and segregationist Democratic base in the South, he didn't do much for them. The war came, FDR died, and a Missouri senator moved into the White House.

Blacks didn't expect much. They got plenty.

James, the author, is especially fine when he describes Truman: The president "relished being underestimated. Humility came so naturally to him that it became a sort of cloak, a disguise in plain sight." It would fool his friends and his foes, including a military hell-bent on preserving the "Jim Crow" status quo.

At times, James – an excellent storyteller – doesn't go far enough into analysis. Readers may wonder more about the long-term impact of the Houston massacre and the personal reasons why Truman became a civil-rights trailblazer. How much did he evolve personally as he was horrified by violence against black veterans? How much did politics affect his decision?

Ultimately, Truman's decision to support desegregation would lead to dramatic change as blacks became officers, oversaw whites, and found more opportunities to become recognized as heroes. In a time of rampant oppression, the forced evolution became "an extraordinary demonstration of what was possible."

Today, we fight over gays and women in the military, and the debate sounds mighty familiar: Are they good enough to fight? Will their presence disrupt everything despite the military's emphasis on discipline? Should the military be on the vanguard of social change or pull up the rear? The words of a pro-segregation secretary of war under FDR about the Army – it "should not be used as a sociological laboratory" – sound positively contemporary.

And what about the risk of disrupting the military with major change during moments of crisis like a war? Why not wait for change until a time when things are quiet? (Never mind that it will never come.)

As James puts it, the military is "both a museum of who we were and a mirror of who we are." To that we can be always faithful.

Randy Dotinga is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.

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