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What Barack Obama Owes Harry Truman

What Barack Obama Owes Harry Truman

William Pfaff

Paris, January 29, 2008 – Events in South Carolina and the introduction of the race issue into the Democratic presidential primary campaign by the Clintons have brought back some memories of my own about race in South Carolina.

One night in January 1951 I was among a busload of young Georgia recruits and draftees to arrive at Fort Jackson, the big infantry training base near the state capital, Columbia. It was a racially mixed group, uneducated, headed for the infantry because not very promising material for any other military role.

I was the only one with a college degree, and one of the few who had finished high school. I was with them because I had put my name down for officer candidate school, and for that, the full, 16-week-long basic infantry training cycle was essential, rather than the 8-week short course where most people with higher qualifications went.

It had been a long drive and the bus had segregated itself – this was still Jim Crow's South – with blacks in the back and whites in the front. One white guy said in a low voice, "I hear they got (racial expletive) officers in this man's army. I ain't gonna salute no (expletive) officer!" Other whites muttered agreement.

We arrived late at Jackson, and apprehensively gathered outside the bus. A big, black, calm, master sergeant strode up to look us over. The fellow who wasn't going to salute no black officers was pulling at a cigarette. The sergeant said, "you, there! Eat that cigarette." The recruit managed to get the fire out before he ate the cigarette. It was now established who was in charge.
This was less than three years after President Harry Truman's executive order desegregating America's military services. There had been one or two all-black, white-officered combat regiments in the regular army, but otherwise in the past blacks did the hard physical jobs in supply, transport and ordinance outfits. They were thought unfit to fight. The peacetime Marines would not accept them.

The army had always been a Southern institution, and in 1948 still was, despite the Civil War. Then a president from the border state of Missouri made it into the most important instrument of black liberation and social ascension America had seen since Emancipation.

The ruling was expected to cost him the 1948 election. The Democrats split and South Carolina's Senator J. Strom Thurmond ran against Truman as a "Dixicrat." Ex-vice president Henry Wallace ran against him for the Communist-controlled Progressive Party.

Truman won, and soon made himself even more unpopular by intervening against North Korea's invasion of South Korea in 1950. A lazy, out of shape, American occupation army was driven nearly into the sea before it was saved by MacArthur's audacious Inchon landings.

We, at Jackson, were put to work learning, marching, sleeping and eating in strict alphabetical non-racial order. My shelter-half mate was a tall, quiet, uneducated black man with an instinct for mechanics, named Powell.

As the instructor would start off, "Today, menses [plural of "men" in the dialect of most of our instructors] we's gonna learn the .45 caliber, recoil-operated automatic pistol..." I would be listening and taking notes; Powell would already have taken the damned thing apart and was showing me how "this bit here I reckons pushes that bit there..."

Our elected squad leaders included the unforgettable Geecher. He was a garage mechanic from near the Ogeechee river in Georgia, his powerful body terribly scarred by a gasoline fire. He spoke Gullah – when he wasn't shouting, screeching and hollering at people to get goin', get things done, "let's get these troops movin' out of the hot sun!..."

Gullah is a dialect, all but unintelligible to non-Gullahs, combining (my encyclopedia says) the phonology and grammar of several west African languages with 17th and 18th century English as spoken in Barbados, where The Geecher's ancestors had spent their first century of enslavement -- before being shipped on to the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands, following the sugarcane plantation interests of their English and American masters. They are still there.

At the end of our 16 weeks I went on to NCO school. Powell, The Geecher, and the rest had orders for Oakland, where the troop ships left for the Far East Command. That was in spring 1951. They would have arrived in time for the last bitter battles for position before the Korean Truce talks began in July.

Two more years of sporadic "meat-grinder" local battles for position and advantage followed, before the full Armistice was signed in 1953, after 50,000 U.S. dead and more than 100 thousand wounded.

I wondered then what had happened to Powell, The Geech, the rest of the company -- and the intense little lieutenant just back from Korea we had during the last weeks of basic training who ran us everywhere because he said that if we were not in top physical condition when we arrived in Korea we would die.

I wondered about the white guy who wasn't going to salute no (expletive) black officer. I knew part of the story. After we had been at Jackson for a month or so, he said to me one day, "I wish we could get rid of this (non-racial expletive) white captain we got. I hate him. I wish we had that (expletive) black captain they got up at Company C. He's a great guy." That is how the South was changing. Unsegregated universal military service changed race relations in America, while few noticed.

This week I've wondered again about them. What would they have made – or make, if they survive – of Barack Obama, and of the Clintons. What does he – and the United States -- owe Harry Truman?
© Copyright 2007 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.

This article comes from William PFAFF

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