The history of military service as a pathway to social equality

For anyone who has ever wondered why black men would voluntarily join the military during the Jim Crow era, during a time when they were considered unworthy of full-fledged citizenship and oftentimes less than human, Baton Rouge historian Marcus Cox says he believes he has the answer.

Cox said he would often look with puzzlement at his grandfather, Matthew Trahan, a 30-year Army veteran who lived through World War II before retiring after the Vietnam War.

“He lived through the civil rights era,” Cox said. “I often wondered why he and other African Americans wanted to serve a country that didn’t treat them fairly.”

The answer: “They wanted to prove they were not cowards, to prove they were men. Some of them needed the steady paycheck that came with a military job because they didn’t have the same job opportunities that whites had,” Cox said. “But most of all, they wanted to prove they were worthy of first-class citizenship.”

Cox, a Southern University alum who teaches history at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., was back in Baton Rouge last week to talk about his new book.

It’s titled “Segregated Soldiers: Military Training at Historically Black Colleges in the Jim Crow South.”

His appearance in his hometown, including a lecture at his alma mater ,was timed to coincide with the week in which the country celebrated Veterans Day.

The book was published in May through LSU Press.

In it, Cox notes a number of ways black enlistees leveraged military service with civil rights.

The book also touches on the phenomenon when presidents of historically black colleges and universities embraced military training on their campuses, more than a large number of white colleges and universities.

Cox said the notion of serving honorably, and therefore proving worthy enough to have Jim Crow laws overturned, has roots in ancient Greek and Roman societies. They didn’t have standing armies.

“They relied on citizens to defend their cities and their country during a crisis,” Cox said. “In return for your service, you received first-class citizen rights.”

Cox said the same basic concept holds true during the early days of the United States, when the fledgling union also did not have a standing army, but instead relied on a citizen militia.

“There’s always been this connection between citizenship and service that goes back to the origins of our country,” he said. “So minorities and immigrants, in some cases, fought for the right to fight, because they wanted to attain citizenship. Through service they could hope to become politically and socially equal to whites.”

Cox also credits military service for helping to build the middle-class during the 1950s in the aftermath of both World War II and the Korean War.

Servicemen, white and black, were given the inside track on federal jobs back then, a practice that is continued today.

“My uncle Angelo Petite was in the Navy during World War II. When he got out, he found work as a postman,” Cox said.

“Most black soldiers didn’t have a college degree. The G.I. Bill changed that.

“People who go to college generally send their children to college,” Cox continued. “What I found was that there is a strong connection between education and service.”

That connection was particularly strong after the Civil War when many black people learned to read and write while in the military, Cox said.

Some of the men who got that education through military service eventually went on to establish some of the nation’s HBCUs.

“I think that’s why you’ll find that in the early 20th century, most HBCUs were very supportive of military training on campus,” Cox said. “It promoted discipline, education, honor and integrity.

“That was important because African Americans were fighting for the right to vote. Based on negative stereotypes, it was assumed blacks were not worthy of first-class citizenship.”