Military Integration Celebrates 60th Anniversary Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the racial integration of the U.S. military. Derwin McGriff discusses his experience as an African-American chief warrant officer who has served 25 years in the Marine Corps.
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Military Integration Celebrates 60th Anniversary

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Military Integration Celebrates 60th Anniversary

Military Integration Celebrates 60th Anniversary

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Sixty years ago today, President Harry Truman signed an executive order declaring, quote, "that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

U.S. military that had won freedom for Nazi-occupied Europe was segregated. But living up to the ideals it had defended changed America, and over the past 60 years, the U.S. military has often been perceived as being more advanced than the rest of society when it comes to racial integration.

Derwin McGriff is a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a senior legal administrator on active duty at the Pentagon. He joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. McGriff.

Mr. DERWIN MCGRIFF (Chief Warrant Officer, U.S. Marine Corps): You're very welcome.

SIMON: I'm told you joined the Marine Corps in 1983.

Mr. MCGRIFF: That is correct.

SIMON: What was the U.S. military like when you joined it?

Mr. MCGRIFF: In the Marine Corps, in boot camp, one of the things that I took away from it was - you know, there was a phrase, "light green, dark green Marine." Right from the very beginning, the Marine Corps wanted to - at least attempted to instill in you this idea that we're all Marines, regardless of your color. I don't want to hear the black, white, yellow. If you're all Marines, you're all green.

Some might say that's a little naive, but, you know, that's the way of the institution and where they were trying to get you to leave behind some of your perceptions or misperceptions, but if you're going to continue in this institution, this is the way we're looking at it.

SIMON: And almost 25 years later, does it work?

Mr. MCGRIFF: I think it works, and I think it works better than a lot of people would give it credit. Is it perfect? No. But I'm very comfortable with where - not just in the Marine Corps, but just DoD in general, all branches and service, how they have advanced in what they do.

SIMON: People often point out that African-Americans make up about 17 percent of the total force in all branches of the service but only 6 percent of the officer corps. What do you make of that?

Mr. MCGRIFF: Some would say they're disquieting. I don't necessarily feel that way. There's a misperception in some communities regarding the military and oftentimes, I've personally spoken to young African-Americans who don't see the potential in a career in the military. That's something that requires work. We'll never have a large, senior officer corps if we can't - not just recruit, but we have to be able to retain those individual and get them to see that there is a future for themselves.

SIMON: What happens when you leave the military society, even for an afternoon? You know, go to the supermarket, go to a movie. Do you see the rest of society differently?

Mr. MCGRIFF: I'm fortunate enough to be able to live in an area where it's pretty diverse, and I think the haircut can sometimes give you away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I think - you know, there's a certain demeanor where - and respect for the military. However, there are times when I'm on leave, and I'm away further from a military installation, where there's some friction, if you will. You do get a double take. You can check into certain hotels or go in certain areas and the look that you get isn't one of dismay, it's more of discomfort.

SIMON: Now, is that because of the color of your skin?

Mr. MCGRIFF: I think so. I mean, I do. But I think things are getting better. You know, one of the things about being in the military - I live in a sheltered environment, and I think my environment is more diverse than society as a whole. I honestly believe that. Some could say that in the real world, if you will, the civilian world, a lot of the segregation is based on economics or class divisions, and some are focused solely on the race. It's probably a combination of the two. You just don't have that in the military.

Now, is there a hierarchy? Yeah. I mean, you can be segregated in terms of officer housing, enlisted housing, staff and SEAL housing. But based solely on color, that just isn't the case. It doesn't happen. And sometimes, we take that for granted.

SIMON: Chief Warrant Officer Derwin McGriff of the United States Marine Corps. Thank you, and thank you for your service.

Mr. MCGRIFF: Thank you very much, and you're very welcome.

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