Before the election, a young acquaintance, anticipating a Barack Obama victory, commented how meaningful it must be for someone of my generation to have witnessed both segregation in this country and the election of a black president.
His point hit home with special force because my personal experience with segregation was in the armed forces, and the nation is now on the brink of having a black commander-in-chief. On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman ended segregation in the military by executive order. Some 60 years later, on Nov. 4, voters put an exclamation point to what Truman had done.
More than a million black Americans were in uniform during World War II, but for many of us in service they were invisible. Separation by race was the rule from the day I set foot in the induction center. Basic training, combat and all the rest of military service were conducted in a kind of Caucasian cocoon. I had diverse buddies — hillbillies from Kentucky, rednecks from Texas, college students from Wisconsin, farmers from Iowa, Henry Birdseye from the Birds Eye frozen food family — but never did I rub shoulders with, or have anything to do with, a GI of a different race.
The draft and military service were great levelers. They forced people of different class, education, religions and ethnic backgrounds to associate in a common effort — with the glaring exception that stained the military until Harry Truman made it right.
Segregation in the military was accepted as a matter of course. It was almost never discussed. The task at hand was digging foxholes and dodging bullets. If we thought about it we assumed, wrongly, that the bigots in our midst would make integration unworkable.
Given this all-too-recent history, the press ought to make a very big deal about Obama as commander-in-chief. Millions of Americans still living were unwilling participants in a form of apartheid. All the more reason to celebrate this latest milestone with symbolic salutes to the new commander-in-chief.