Naval History and Heritage Command

Hampton Roads Naval Museum

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Shaping Policies: The U.S. Navy During America's Civil Rights Era 

During the second half of the twentieth century, the United States tackled difficult questions concerning what individual rights and liberties are protected under the Constitution. World War II saw vast increases in the responsibilities and opportunities afforded to minority groups. Women and African Americans supported the war effort in record numbers and the Navy and other branches of the armed forces recognized the need to alter outdated policies that restricted participation of minorities. The freedoms these minority groups incurred in wartime were expected in peacetime, and the American people debated and challenged the government to promote equality and expand civil rights to protect all citizens.

Six years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was not in fact equal with regard to education, the United States Armed Forces began the process of desegregation.  Signed by President Harry Truman, Executive Order 9981 announced an end to segregated units throughout the military.  Executive Order 9981 represented a dramatic shift in policy.  However, while segregation was no longer an official Navy policy, there was much work left to be done. During the 1950s, the Navy made few major shifts in its policies or practices. With few exceptions, women who served as WAVES during World War II were expected to return to the role of wife and homemaker.  Navy recruitment targeted young white males—much as it had prior to the World War II buildup. However, by the 1960s, it was clear that the status quo would no longer be acceptable.

Partially due to the momentum of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, minorities serving in the military, experienced dramatic changes during the 1960s and 1970s.  Service members were dealing with the reality of integration, combating institutional racism, and questioning a woman’s place in the armed forces.  This website seeks to bring to light some of the remarkable stories of the men and women who served on the front lines during America’s Civil Rights Era. 

Funding for this project was provided by the Virginia Foundation for Humanities, Naval Historical Foundation, Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation and the Chevallay Education Fund. 

To learn more about the 1960s and 1970s in the Navy, please click the YouTube link below:


Published:Fri Jul 28 11:02:50 EDT 2017