Let Us Fight as Free Men: Black Soldiers and Civil Rights

Let Us Fight as Free Men: Black Soldiers and Civil Rights

Let Us Fight as Free Men: Black Soldiers and Civil Rights

Let Us Fight as Free Men: Black Soldiers and Civil Rights


Today, the military is one the most racially diverse institutions in the United States. But for many decades African American soldiers battled racial discrimination and segregation within its ranks. In the years after World War II, the integration of the armed forces was a touchstone in the homefront struggle for equality--though its importance is often overlooked in contemporary histories of the civil rights movement. Drawing on a wide array of sources, from press reports and newspapers to organizational and presidential archives, historian Christine Knauer recounts the conflicts surrounding black military service and the fight for integration.

Let Us Fight as Free Men shows that, even after their service to the nation in World War II, it took the persistent efforts of black soldiers, as well as civilian activists and government policy changes, to integrate the military. In response to unjust treatment during and immediately after the war, African Americans pushed for integration on the strength of their service despite the oppressive limitations they faced on the front and at home. Pressured by civil rights activists such as A. Philip Randolph, President Harry S. Truman passed an executive order that called for equal treatment in the military. Even so, integration took place haltingly and was realized only after the political and strategic realities of the Korean War forced the Army to allow black soldiers to fight alongside their white comrades. While the war pushed the civil rights struggle beyond national boundaries, it also revealed the persistence of racial discrimination and exposed the limits of interracial solidarity.

Let Us Fight as Free Men reveals the heated debates about the meaning of military service, manhood, and civil rights strategies within the African American community and the United States as a whole.


When Grant Reynolds volunteered for the army at the beginning of the Second World War, he did so with much patriotism and high hopes. He wanted to support the nation’s cause and believed in the necessity of the mission to halt fascism across the globe. But he was also convinced that he could make a difference for his African American comrades and improve their position in and outside the military. Born in 1908, Reynolds had already made a name for himself as a civil rights activist in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was a reverend in the Mount Zion Congregational Temple and president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His service as a chaplain in the armed forces, he thought, would be another opportunity for him to fight for the black cause and strengthen black soldiers in their daily struggles with segregation and discrimination in the military. While preparing soldiers for war stateside, the outspoken chaplain became their confidant and spiritual advisor, as he shared their experiences. Even as an officer, he faced frequent prejudice and acts of humiliation. He was barred from living or eating with white officers. To uphold strict segregation of the races, the army built a separate living quarter just for the black chaplain.

The absurdity and brutality of the system of laws and customs lumped under the label “Jim Crow” emboldened Reynolds to revolt against the oppressive system. Throughout his time in the military, he openly and vigorously demanded desegregation and equal treatment of black recruits. His commitment earned him respect among black soldiers, but also incurred the army’s wrath. By transferring him from one base to the other, they tried to silence him for his relentless activism. In 1944, the army chose a more effective and permanent way to rid itself of Reynolds. Based on a questionable psychiatric evaluation that described him as showing “paranoid trends” and “being involved in affairs that are none of his business,” he . . .

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