60th Anniversary of the Integration of the U.S. Armed Forces (Washington, D.C.)

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As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It is an honor for me to participate in this event, and I thank you, Madame Speaker, for the invitation.

No aspect of black Americans' quest for justice and equality under the law has been nobler than what has been called, "the fight for the right to fight." Our commemoration today of the racial integration of the armed forces makes us reflect on how far we have come toward living up to our founding ideals, and yet how much remains to be done.

I have the privilege of leading an institution that began breaking down the barriers of race at the dawn of the modern civil rights revolution. Sixty years ago, America had just finished waging a mighty and bloody struggle for freedom and human decency abroad. But African Americans who had worn their country's uniform in that conflict returned to face segregation and harassment at home.

President Truman's executive order 9981 was an important statement and an important first step. It had to overcome stiff institutional resistance, as deeply entrenched attitudes were hard to change. The Army, for example, maintained its 10 percent quota on African American recruits, and continued to relegate black soldiers to menial tasks. For several years after the order was promulgated in 1948, segregated units remained the norm and integrated units the exception. …