Blacks in the American Military
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0051
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0051
Since colonial times, blacks have fought in militias or the military in America’s wars. Crispus Attucks, a black man, is listed as the first person to die in the American War of Independence. Blacks have put their lives on the line for a country that for centuries has enslaved, segregated, and discriminated against them. The historic connections between full citizenship and military service led many African Americans to believe and hope that their service in the American military would result in full civil rights and equality. All too often, however, white leadership and society destroyed their hopes. Until the Korean War, blacks served in segregated units under racist leadership and were often relegated to labor and service units. Stereotypes of their alleged incompetence and unreliability dominated in the military and in civilian society through the white press. African Americans’ position as second-class citizens in civilian life was replicated at the military level. Inept training, equipment of poor quality, and racism minimized black military personnel’s chances of advancement within the armed forces. Early on, civil rights activists, the African American press, and historians challenged the discriminatory and segregated conditions and the negative and humiliating images of black soldiers presented in dominant public discourse. Despite the continuous discriminatory treatment that denied blacks full participation in America’s wars and military efforts, the historic link between military service and civil rights assumed a special position in the African American community. This position considered military service as an important means to demand and acquire full civil rights. Initially, predominantly military historians have explored this field by focusing on black soldiers’ service and role in battles and wars under oppressive and discriminatory circumstances. For years this scholarship took a top-down approach that revealed how and where the military used and excluded blacks. Especially since the late 20th century, however, historians have shifted the focus away from more traditional military history of warfighting and operations to war and society, often still called the New Military History. It focuses on social and cultural history of military and war. Questions of race and protest movements of minorities against mistreatment and military segregation within and outside the armed forces have gained more attention. So have questions concerning memory and gender. They have also played an increasingly important role in research of blacks in the military, broadening the story beyond questions of race.
Starting in the 1970s, numerous overviews have been published on African Americans in the US armed forces since the American Revolution. These works focus predominantly on the long service and involvement in combat of African Americans in the armed forces, with the intention of debunking the myth of black soldiers as cowardly and unfit to defend the nation. Buckley 2001, Edgerton 2001, Lanning 1997, and Mullen 1973 provide good overviews and introductions to the issue at hand. Foner 1974 and Nalty 1986 remain the most in-depth and academic studies of the topic. While other overviews are based mostly on secondary sources, Nalty’s book makes use of a multitude of primary sources. While the edited volume Jensen 2016 includes articles on other minorities, the majority of the twenty articles are on blacks in the military. Phillips 2012 provides a detailed study that uses a plethora of primary and secondary sources. The book’s focus lies on the period since the Second World War and looks at the home front and the fate of the soldiers abroad.
Buckley, Gail. American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm. New York: Random House, 2001.
Provides an overview of African American soldiers’ involvement, performance, and experience in US wars from the American Revolution to Desert Storm. Predominantly based on secondary literature, interviews, and autobiographical writing, the book underlines the racism against blacks in service on a daily basis but also the profound transformation the American military went through, especially since the Second World War. African American activism for change in the military is selectively included.
Edgerton, Robert B. Hidden Heroism: African Americans Soldiers in America’s Wars. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001.
Focuses on black soldiers’ heroism and the stereotype of black cowardice promulgated among whites in and outside the military. Covers the period from the American Revolution to the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Tells stories of black heroism in battle and the positive reputation they had among the French military during the First World War, for example. Includes a bibliography and rudimentary notes.
Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History: A New Perspective. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Remains one of the most referenced overviews on African Americans in the military. Has not been updated since 1974. Good introduction to the nature of the relationship between blacks and the military, especially the Army.
Jensen, Geoffrey W., ed. The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race and the American Military. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Edited collection contains an introduction and twenty articles on race and the American military from colonial times to 1980. Studies cover specific aspects of the general topic. Deals with African Americans as well as other minority groups in the United States.
Lanning, Michael Lee. The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. Secaucus, NJ: Carol, 1997.
Overview of African Americans in the military geared toward the general reader. Is a good introduction to the subject.
Mullen, Robert W. Blacks in America’s Wars: The Shift in Attitudes from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. New York: Monad, 1973.
Succinct overview of the involvement of African Americans in America’s wars to Vietnam. Underlines the essential role of African Americans in American victories in wars.
Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Thorough synthesis of the changes and continuities in military policy and treatment of African Americans. Focused on administrative history, the book all too often neglects the fate of black soldiers and black activism.
Phillips, Kimberley. War! What Is It Good for? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Essential study of African American attitudes and involvement in American military endeavors from World War II to the Iraq War. Positions African American military service and the problems of black internationalism within the long civil rights movement. Reveals how white supremacy at home and abroad shaped African American military service and the opportunities and limits it offered to black draftees and soldiers.
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