Attorney-author Rawn James Jr.

The son and grandson of African American vets, James examines the significance of the landmark executive order signed by President Truman integrating the military.

A former assistant attorney general for the District of Columbia—where he still practices law—Rawn James wrote all through college at Yale and law school at Duke. He was originally a fiction writer and signed with a literary agent at age 19, segueing to nonfiction in 2005. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, among other publications, and he's also author of Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation, and, his latest, The Double V, in which he narrates the history of how the struggle for equality in the military helped give rise to the fight for equality in civilian society.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

First, a conversation with author Rawn James, Jr. Next month is the 65th anniversary of President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 which desegregated the U.S. military. James has written a new text which does a much-needed deep dive into this landmark decision titled “The Double V: How Wars, Protests and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military.”

And then we’ll pivot to a conversation with eight-time Grammy nominee, saxophonist Dave Koz. His brand of smooth jazz is on display once again in a new CD called “Summer Horns.”

But before we get to those conversations, this is our 10th season on PBS, so we continue to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible every night. So joining me now – come on, Dave – David Carline, who’s been with me since the very beginning.

He runs one of our three cameras and captures everything you see every night. I must say, even though I don’t want Dave to hear this, it does make me feel good to look out every night and see a familiar face hiding behind the camera who I know is gonna make me look my best. So thanks, Dave [laugh].

David Carline: Thank you, Tavis [laugh]. You know, I recognize we have two things in common.

Tavis: What’s that?

Carline: We both are men of faith and we have powerful praying mothers.

Tavis: Yes. We do indeed.

Carline: And with that said, the thing that stands out in my head about the past 10 years is when we meet every year here in the studio and your mother, she either comes over the phone or in person, and we’re praying. She prays over you and the staff and the show.

And I have to say, Mrs. Smiley, that the prayers have worked. We’ve been here for 10 wonderful years. And I’d also like to thank your director, Jonathan X, and you for having me as part of your team in the past 10 years. It’s been wonderful.

Tavis: Couldn’t have done without you for 10 years. I appreciate you for saying that. Congratulations on your son. His son just graduated law school, by the way, so congrats to your son. All right, take it away. Who’s coming up tonight?

Carline: Tonight we’re having a conversation with Rawn James and Dave Koz, coming up right now.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: In World War II, African Americans fought two battles simultaneously, the actual war, of course, and the battle to be treated the same as their white counterparts. They called their goal the Double V, meaning victory over fascism abroad and racism at home.

And President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948 desegregating all branches of the U.S. military. It marked the culmination of more than 150 years of legal, political and moral struggle.

That history is now thankfully captured in an important new text written by Rawn James, Jr. titled “The Double V: How Wars, Protests and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military.” Rawn James, good to have you, sir, on this program.

Rawn James, Jr.: Thank you very much for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: And thanks for the book, man. Important work. Let me start by going right at the Truman issue which is fascinating to consider that Truman becomes an unlikely hero, which is a fascinating phrase. He ends up being a hero for desegregating, but it was unlikely how it happened, so let’s start with that.

James: Yes. President Truman would certainly appear at first blush to be an unlikely president who would issue an order to desegregate America’s military. He was raised in what he described as a violently prejudiced southern family. However, President Truman had long been astute to the concerns of African Americans.

As the great civil rights hero, Roy Wilkins, wrote, then-Senator Truman was astute on the so-called color question before most other white politicians were. And this was because his political career, even back in Missouri, was largely dependent on being responsive to African American voters.

Tavis: Tell me more about that.

James: President Truman, when he was a senator, so we’ll say Senator Truman at the time, when he first was elected senator, he was elected pretty much by the Pendergast Machine. When he was reelected senator, he ran against Governor Lloyd Stark, former Missouri governor, Lloyd Stark. It was the closest election.

It was the Democratic primary, which was the only election that mattered during that time in Missouri, and it was the closest Democratic primary since 1822 in the State of Missouri. President Truman carried it by less than 5,000 votes.

Lloyd Stark was a widely known ardent segregationist. African Americans voted in Kansas City and African Americans voted in St. Louis and it’s hard to think really of any of them in any number casting their ballots for Lloyd Stark.

President Truman owed his second term as a United States Senator, without which he would not have been Vice President of the United States, to African American voters and he knew that.

Tavis: So he might have been astute on the color question, but it still isn’t like when you read your book that he just came to this conclusion on his own, it was an altruistic gesture, it was the right thing to do. That’s why I say unlikely hero ’cause it didn’t happen like that.

James: No, it did not happen like that at all. It was, as you noted in the introduction, it was the result of 150 years of political struggle and moral struggle. During the Revolutionary War, African Americans fought in the Revolutionary War and died by the thousands.

They fought in an integrated military and it was not until after the Revolutionary War that African Americans were expunged from the United States military because the newly-formed United States of America was run largely by Virginians.

And Virginia at the time was more than 50% African American and the prospect of training Black men in large numbers in military bearing and the use of arms was anathema to the thinking of our founding fathers.

Tavis: So how then did, 150 years later, this become the moment, Truman become the president? How does all this perfect storm start to align in ’48?

James: Begins first with World War I. During the Great War, African Americans – W.E.B. du Bois wrote the famous article saying we will close ranks and stand shoulder to shoulder with our white brothers. And what African Americans did during this time in the 1917 period was they put aside their grievances.

They by and large stopped much of the lobbying that was happening thinking that, when we fight in this war, when we prove our metal, we will then return home and we will have the rights that are rightfully ours. That did not happen.

And when African Americans returned from World War I in 1919 in what’s now known as the Red Summer, with race riots which really, truly are more race battles taking place in cities and African American veterans being murdered, lynched, while wearing their uniforms.

In the wake of that, in the drumbeat of World War II coming on and all Americans knew that we would be entering into the war one way or another, African Americans said very publicly this time we will not set aside our grievances. This time we will fight to defeat fascism abroad and racism at home.

And it was A. Philip Randolph who I think of as the first political prophet in this country since Frederick Douglass who brought that to the direct attention in the oval office. He brought it to President Roosevelt’s attention and said, “Mr. President, you must desegregate the military.”

Tavis: He brings it to Roosevelt’s attention, but we’re talking about Truman, though.

James: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me about the link between the two.

James: Yes. Well, Mr. Randolph brought it to Roosevelt’s attention and President Roosevelt was not going to desegregate the military. He was a Navy man. But Mr. Randolph stayed at it and, in the 1944 election, desegregating the military was the single most important issue to African Americans.

It’s difficult to overstate how encompassing the concept of the Double V was to the lives of African Americans. There were Miss Double V pageants at colleges. There were Double V dances in cities like Atlanta and Washington, D.C. and New York.

So these leaders then, when they went with Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, they brought that to President Truman’s attention, the buildup had been going on for many years. And, frankly, Truman was simply more concerned about the plight of African Americans than was President Roosevelt.

Tavis: Let me back up to President Roosevelt because there have been so many comparisons, as you know, to President Obama and FDR. It might be mind-boggling for some who really don’t know the history to consider we think of how liberal FDR was, that this was something he would not do, something that he did not do. Tell me a bit more about that.

James: President Roosevelt was very concerned about maintaining the New Deal, the legislation that he had passed, and without southern Democrats. Southern Democrats at the time controlled the Senate due to the seniority rules which still exist today, due to the seniority rules in the United States Senate.

And he believed that, if he began to push really at all for any meaningful civil rights legislation, he would lose the backing of the southern senators and that his New Deal legislation would crumble. And that was his primary concern throughout his presidency.

Tavis: It’s fascinating, I mean, that he wouldn’t do it, for all that he did do.

James: But he could have…

Tavis: For as great a president as he was, he didn’t do this. I’m sorry, go ahead.

James: I was gonna say, he could have issued the Executive Order. In fact, it was A. Philip Randolph who asked him to issue an Executive Order. He said, “Mr. President, you can do this without Congress’s approval” because he understood the political realities afoot.

And it was Mr. Randolph who predicted that, when it does happen, it’s not going to happen through Congress. It will happen through a presidential Executive Order, and that is what happened with the next president, President Truman.

Tavis: If there is a thesis, if there is – thesis is the right word – to the text, it is that the modern-day civil rights movement that we think of or the movement that we know as this movement for freedom in this country really has its beginnings not in the King era, not even so much so much Emmett Till, not with Rosa Parks, with all due respect, to all of them.

Your thesis is that this movement as we now know it really began with the desegregation of the military.

James: That’s absolutely right. What we call the civil rights movement began with the struggle to desegregate America’s military and this is the primary reason that military segregation was the first issue since slavery that united all African Americans.

So whether an individual was a graduate of Harvard Medical School or was a sharecropper with a fourth grade education, he was drafted into the same harshly segregated military.

So there was no way of saying this is a southern problem, this is a northern problem or I live in New York, so this doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers the people in Florida. This united all African Americans.

Tavis: Earlier this week, we saw the – depending on what perspective one has – we saw the Supreme Court punt an affirmative action case. We saw the Supreme Court make the right decision on what was a bad case. Again, depends on where you are on the ideological and political spectrum.

In any event, we don’t have a decision as of this moment. I’m sure we will in the coming months and years. They won another case. But for this week, we got past that moment of thinking that affirmative action might be bygone.

I raise that only because the military has been given credit for years now, decades now, for being so far ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to giving opportunities, equal opportunity for African Americans.

If in fact that is the case – and I’m not naive in asking this question – but if in fact that is the case, and I do believe it to some degree they’ve been ahead of the rest of the country, why is it that the only Black person’s name who we know from the military is Colin Powell? Why is it the case all these years later?

James: Well, there are…

Tavis: There are others, of course.

James: Yes, yes.

Tavis: But for a military that’s been given that much credit for leading the country on the issue of desegregation and for leading the country on the issue of race, for being a more level playing field there than anyplace else, why aren’t there more Colin Powells?

James: I think that there are. Well, I certainly know that there are other flag officers and senior executive service members on the civilian side that I think that you raise a very good question on why, during the last major affirmative action case to reach the Supreme Court, the Grutter versus Michigan case…

Tavis: That’s right.

James: Dozens of retired generals, admirals of all races signed on to what’s now known as the Military Briefing. It’s seen as the most successful and meekest brief in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Tavis: Correct.

James: And they argued forcefully for maintaining affirmative action. The authors wrote that is necessary for a number of military reasons they put forth. And that brief came as a surprise to many people because, again, we think of African Americans in the military, we think of Colin Powell and say, okay, well, name someone else, and there can often be a pause.

I think the military can do a better job and is beginning to do a better job of showing how diverse it is as an institution, particularly with gender as well.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised that. So this book is really about the Double V as it relates to African Americans. But tell me more about the issue of gender and how it’s playing itself out in the military certainly of late with all these cases that the president’s had to speak to, the defense secretary has had to speak to, about – I don’t want to say maltreatment – but the disrespect of women in the military all these years later.

James: Well, I’m a civilian trial attorney for the U.S. Navy. So first, I’m saying I’m speaking only in my own behalf. And secondly, I have to be a bit careful in what I say here. But the connection that I do see is that now there are bills pending in Congress and there’s talk of increasing women into all combat roles including Special Forces.

And you have Congress men and women saying on the record that, if we allow service women to do everything that service men can do, that will cut back on some of this violence that we are seeing and some of this unacceptable behavior.

That was exactly Truman’s point in the oval office when he was meeting with his advisers and meeting with Mr. Randolph and Mr. White saying we have to do something prospectively. We cannot address each one of these cases of violence against African American veterans. We have to do something prospectively to get everyone on an equal playing field.

Tavis: So, finally, what is the lasting legacy of these soldiers highlighted by what Truman finally got around to doing that we need to appreciate today?

James: The word that comes to my mind is discipline. It’s the extraordinary amount of discipline it took. Of course, discipline is synonymous with military service.

But when you read about some of these heroes like Vernon Baker, the anger that he spoke about openly at the White House when he was awarded the Medal of Honor and the anger that he had to live with as he was fighting for his country and be denied a glass of water at the Red Cross, saying, well, the Red Cross for the colored is a mile down, one click down, to work with that anger and still do one’s duty is extraordinary testament to those men and women.

Tavis: The book by Rawn James, Jr. is called “The Double V: How Wars, Protests and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military.” I’ve only scratched the surface in this conversation. You’ll want to get this and add it to your collection, as I have. Rawn, good to have you on the program.

James: Thank you very much.

Tavis: And thanks for the work too.

James: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: August 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm