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The Promise

March 2023
3min read

It is now more than half a century since a group of us Morehouse College students traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, from Atlanta, Georgia, in 1942 to spend the summer working on the Cullman Brothers Tobacco Farms. I was the student leader for this chartered bus trip, which took us through eastern Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and finally into Connecticut.

I was born and reared in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The summers of 1938 and 1939 I worked with my uncles Harden and Hampton Carter in their small trucking business in St. Louis, Missouri. After finishing high school in 1940, I had gone to Los Angeles for seven months and across the country to Buffalo, New York, for another four months before entering Morehouse in September 1941. The trip to Connecticut was for some reason very different for me. I had never seen or realized the depth of racial discrimination in our land as I did on this trip.

Except for our stop at the colored teachers college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we were unable to get a decent meal anywhere. We had near physical confrontations in a small Delaware town and in Washington, D.C., where we were ordered out of the bus station’s restaurant and threatened with arrest when I protested. Despite my troubles with Jim Crow all of my young life, I had not expected that kind of discrimination in our nation’s capital.

Though Chattanooga was and still is a small town, I was basically a city boy, and I left the Connecticut tobacco farm after a week and moved to Hartford, where I got a job with a large construction company, making more money than I would have on the farm. I rented a room with a nice couple, cooked for myself, and had plenty of time to read, study, and consider the plight colored people faced in our country. The trip through Washington had made me more intense.

I decided that I would not register for the draft and would use this tool to protest military discrimination.

During those summer nights I considered what I might do to help change civil rights conditions, and I decided that I would not register for the draft and would use this tool to make a national protest. On my written document I clearly established that I was not a conscientious objector and that my objection to the draft was the discrimination in the military and colored people’s second-class status in our everyday life.

When I returned to the Morehouse campus in September 1942, the college president, Benjamin E. Mays, heard about my decision and asked me to come to his office and discuss the matter with him. Our meeting was cordial, but toward the end of our discussion Dr. Mays explained to me that I was legally obligated to register for the draft and that if I persisted in violating the law, he would require me to withdraw from the college.

Shortly after this meeting Dr. Mays asked me to his office again and explained that he had contacted a government official, Dr. Channing H. Tobias, well known as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on “Negro Affairs” and Dr. Mays’s longtime friend. He said that Dr. Tobias was coming to Atlanta and would talk to me about my draft status.

Dr. Tobias was a heavyset light-skinned man who could have been the Secretary of State if he had not been colored. He was very cordial and very professional as we discussed my decision about the draft. He agreed that my position was ethically correct but pointed out that legally and technically I was not on solid ground.

He impressed me when he stated that he had discussed the matter with President Roosevelt and that FDR was sympathetic to my position. He said that it was unlikely the President could do anything about the problem immediately but that Mr. Roosevelt wanted me to sign for the draft and enter the service, and after the war FDR would make changes in the military for integration and ending discrimination.

I will never know if Dr. Tobias really did talk to Franklin Roosevelt about me, but I was given time to make a decision, and when I agreed to register, somebody at the White House arranged for me to do it in the office of the general in charge of the Georgia draft board. Dr. Mays drove me to the general’s office at Fort McPherson. I signed the necessary papers and received my draft card signed by Gen. G. Goodman. I had made my point.

In 1951, when I was hired as an instructor to teach operational intelligence for the United States Air Force, I discovered that President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order of 1948 seemed to fulfill his predecessor’s promise. The changes were unbelievable compared with my Army days. Maybe Dr. Tobias did discuss the matter with the President.

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