The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The military provides a model for how institutions can address racism

Under pressure from African American soldiers, Congress and civil rights activists, the U.S. military transformed in the 1970s.

A demonstrator faces military police near the White House to protest the killing of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
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George Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day has led to demonstrations in all 50 states and across the world, all calling for officials to fundamentally restructure the police state.

But what will this look like?

Efforts to reform the U.S. military in the 1960s and ’70s provide some lessons. Over 40 years ago, protests combined with pressure from a wide coalition of civilians, politicians and soldiers to push an institution to promote meaningful cultural change and to examine an unfair justice system. Change happened from vigilant activism, congressional support and a refusal to accept mere symbolism.

Even though African Americans have always served in the U.S. military during war, it was not until 1948 that segregated units were abandoned. But integration did not mean that discrimination and racism disappeared, and during the Vietnam War, racial tensions escalated. In the span of several weeks in October 1968, two African American majors in the Army resigned because of their assessment of racial discrimination in the military. Maj. Lavell Merritt called the military one of “the strongest citadels of racism on earth.” African American officer Maj. John B. Jones would later say that “the war [was] still in the barracks.”

Problems within the military mirrored broader social issues in the United States. But military institutions also had particular problems, notably a racially biased military justice system. African American soldiers pointed to the administration of “Article 15” punishments, which did not require judicial review. Officers had full discretion to punish soldiers with no oversight and without thorough investigations. African American soldiers received these nonjudicial punishments at much higher rates than their white counterparts, often with more severe consequences. This system paired with lower rates of promotion and a reluctance to recognize structural discrimination eventually prompted uprisings in 1971.

Of all the protests that year, the most severe was one at Fort McClellan, Ala., located outside the town notorious for being the site where white supremacists had bombed a bus full of Freedom Riders in 1961. Over the course of two weeks in November 1971, African American soldiers gathered to protest local bus drivers who had hurled racial slurs at them. But soon their grievances expanded to include practices within the military: unfair discipline practices, unequal rates of promotion and inaction of command when soldiers reported incidents of discrimination and abuse.

Fort McClellan command responded to mass gatherings with blanket arrests, resulting in military police detaining over 100 military service members. In the wake of the uprising, the commander blamed “troublemaking” militant soldiers, rather than the institution’s failure to address racism within the installation.

But the protest garnered national attention, and the Congressional Black Caucus launched ad hoc hearings to investigate racism in the military. Many black officers and enlistees warned that the situation was explosive. They testified that the military failed to enforce off-base housing regulations, which resulted in white enlisted men finding better housing than black officers. Across the military, Congress learned, when soldiers reported discrimination, complaints were swept under the rug and officers refused to take action.

The Department of Defense responded to increased congressional scrutiny by creating the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI), which was tasked with developing educational programs for enlistees and officers throughout all military branches. It trained instructors to lead conversations about race at all military installations. These rap sessions served as a way for African American soldiers to speak out without fear of retaliation and provide an avenue to solve conflict.

While it seemed to be a step in the right direction, it neither solved the problem for black soldiers nor did it lessen the frequency of their complaints. Yes, the DDRI did facilitate hard conversations about race, ones that extended around the world. But racial sensitivity training and informal conversations without policy reforms resulted in symbolic, not structural change. While the DDRI brought some issues to the surface, many soldiers insisted that there were not enough significant reforms.

So the uprisings continued and black officers continued to resign. Under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP, the Department of Defense conducted a study on military justice and race in 1972. The report was deeply flawed. While it uncovered a pattern of disproportionate punishments and more severe consequences for African American soldiers, it refused to acknowledge that the military itself had institutional problems and instead blamed this discrimination on “social” forces. But the report did make some meaningful suggestions to address discrimination, including allocating African American seats on administrative review boards handling discharges, requiring the exhaustion of preliminary rehabilitative measures before imposing an “Article 15” punishment, and granting soldiers the right to a personal hearing before commanders when accused of an infraction.

The combined efforts of the Black Caucus, soldiers and the task force for military justice resulted in significant changes, including guaranteeing defendants’ access to free legal aid, even for trivial offenses, and making public all punishments imposed on soldiers below the rank of staff sergeant. However, military leadership hid behind their reforms as progress and blamed the DDRI for racial tensions remaining high on installations where white soldiers and officers resented black soldiers speaking freely about discrimination. Black unrest boiled to the surface at the Pentagon by the mid 1970s, when DDRI faced budget cuts that resulted in the number of instructors dropping significantly.

The move toward an all-volunteer force after 1973 introduced new challenges linked to minority recruitment. While recruiters celebrated individuality of enlistees and officers in sales pitches, in reality, white officers looked suspiciously at black soldiers’ wearing bracelets and sporting hair styles that echoed black power activism.

Yet, after the Vietnam War ended, the Army intensified its efforts to appeal to African Americans because its research showed that they were more likely to be motivated by military benefits than white Americans, who benefited from privileges in civilian society. This push succeeded in that minorities volunteered at higher rates, especially young African Americans. Between 1972 and 1981, African American representation in the military doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent, and the Army’s ranks were 33 percent black in 1981. Over time, the military’s officer ranks became slightly more diverse as well: While in 1980, 91 percent of new officers were white and 7 percent were black, by 2009, 76 percent were white and 9 percent were black. Military efforts to strengthen African American representation in the officer corps, however, were stymied by federal courts that struck down the practice of allowing promotion boards to consider race in an officer’s record (Saunders v. White 2002).

True change, then, if we look to the military as an example, will require pressure on the institution itself, but perhaps more important, pressure on the courts and the federal government, which set guidelines and rules that shape local policing. Any progress within policing practices will be susceptible to the whims of the courts and the federal government. Racism is systemic, and transforming our institutions will require constant vigilance.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that Floyd was killed in Wisconsin. He was killed in Minnesota, and the story has been corrected.