Blacks in military see big changes

wcrenshaw@macon.comFebruary 14, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- When Brig. Gen. Cedric George learned he was being promoted to lieutenant colonel, his dad’s reaction went beyond fatherly pride.

Jack George served 32 years in the Army, starting from when he was drafted during the Korean War. He and all of his brothers served in Vietnam, and he lost a brother in that war.

In Korea, the military was just beginning to integrate black troops, and overt racism was still rampant.

By the time Jack George retired in 1982, the service had completely changed. The emotions of all he had endured washed over him when his son told him about the promotion, which came earlier than expected.

“He cried like a baby,” said George, commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, and the first person in his family to be commissioned as an officer. “That was unheard of when he entered the service.”

George, the first black commander of what previously was called the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, said he hasn’t encountered discrimination in his time in the Air Force. The stories told to him by his father, who died in 2001, have made him appreciate how much things have changed.

“We want problem solvers, no matter their race, color or creed,” he said. “What I have found in my 25 years of service is that this service is committed to it.”

Black History Month, he said, is important to him because it’s a time to reflect on those, like his father, who went before him when times were much different.

When he was promoted to brigadier general last year, he wondered what his father’s reaction might have been had he lived to see that.

“My belief is that he saw this from heaven, to see me get notified I had made general officer in the United States Air Force,” George said. “It is deeply emotional to be where I am as a commander.”

Living through change

Richard Dixon, of Warner Robins, had an experience much like George’s father. A Twiggs County native, he was drafted into the Army in 1946 when the military was still segregated.

Over his 30 years of service as a paratrooper, including in Korea and Vietnam, he went from living in segregated barracks to what he called the full realization of equal opportunity.

“Things started to improve over the years, and when I say years, that’s exactly what I mean,” he said. “It didn’t just improve -- but very slowly.”

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the full integration of the military. That was a big deal to Dixon and his fellow troops in their all-black unit.

He remembers when he was stationed at Fort Benning, black troops were in a separate area of the base. While Truman’s order meant they could go freely throughout the base, it wasn’t exactly accepted by the military police.

“If you went up there at night, most of the MPs would drive along and watch you, like you was going to steal something or kill somebody,” he said.

Integration didn’t truly start to happen until about 1950 when he went to Korea. That was the first time he served in an integrated unit, and he was among about 10 blacks serving in a unit of about 160.

Many of the white troops accepted integration, but others did not. Attitudes really began to change, however, when the unit went into combat. He remembered a white officer being injured and needing a rare blood type. A black soldier was the only one in the unit with that blood type, so he got on the medical evacuation helicopter with the wounded officer and gave his blood.

“Once you are in combat, it changes because your life depends on each other,” said Dixon, now 85.

By the time Vietnam came around, he saw an even bigger change. By then he was a Green Beret and was the only black person in a 10-man unit. Race wasn’t an issue at all then because of the close-knit nature of the unit and the dependency on each other.

But one of the biggest steps was something that happened in the civilian world. Once schools were integrated, Dixon began to see a change in white troops entering the military. Going to an all-volunteer force also brought in a different breed of troops.

“The attitude of people had changed by the time they came into the military because they had been to school with blacks, Hispanics, all races,” he said. “I think the civilian world changed the attitude of the military more than the military did itself.”

When he retired in 1976, he said, the treatment of black troops was completely different from when he first entered.

“If there is such a thing as more than 100 percent, I say it’s 200 percent because the military has made a complete reverse,” he said.

Changes come to Robins

Even though change came slowly in the military, it came a lot faster than in the civilian world.

Robins Air Force Base historian Bill Head said the nature of the military itself was a big reason for that. He noted it was many years after the Supreme Court mandated integration of public schools before it actually took place.

But in the military once the order comes down from above, the command must be obeyed whether officers like it or not. That’s why Robins had an integrated school long before it ever happened outside the gates.

Head credited the changes on base to spurring faster changes outside.

“Robins has a big impact on everything,” he said. “It influences the social fabric. People in a lot of ways are much more progressive because of that.”

The history of those who served before him is not lost on Capt. Luther Brown, a black navigator in the 461st Air Control Wing. Not long after he joined the Air Force, he took an interest in the Tuskegee Airmen story. He portrays a Tuskegee Airman in a mural at the Museum of Aviation’s exhibit on the first black aviators in the military.

“If it wasn’t for what they did, I don’t think it would be possible for me to do what I am doing today,” he said. “It’s just like Jackie Robinson for baseball.”

For Brown, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen isn’t just for black people.

“Their story is one that should be told and be perpetuated more because I think young people of all demographics and all races ... hearing those stories gives hope, and that’s what people need, especially folks in lower-class communities.”

Blacks have long history in U.S. military

While all-black units in World War II like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines and the Army’s Buffalo Soldiers are often seen as the pioneers for blacks in the military, it actually goes back much further than that.

In fact, blacks have participated in every U.S. war going back to the Revolutionary War. By 2010, blacks made up almost 19 percent of the active enlisted military, while making up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Edward Shelor, who teaches military history at Georgia Military College, pointed out that in the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware, one of the men in the boat is black.

“From the very beginning you are going to find people of all sorts who served,” he said.

He also noted blacks served on both sides in the Civil War, though most were in support roles. The movie “Glory” depicted the combat exploits of the Union’s all-black 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, but Shelor said even for the North few blacks saw combat.

It wasn’t until World War II and later that blacks began to see extensive combat action.

Shelor, who is white, is a former Marine officer who joined in 1976. He remembers having white and black drill instructors and didn’t see race being an issue then.

“There was no tolerance for it,” he said. “When you are in a hot spot, you wanted the best guys you had to be around you.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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