Sergeant fought disrespect

By rank he was a sergeant, but to many of his subordinates he was a constant reminder of unwelcome change.

 

Several years after President Truman signed his executive order desegregating the military, Albert Griffin still found his authority being challenged by white soldiers while stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., in the early 1950s.

He recalled how one white soldier refused to respect his orders to pick up cigarette butts around the barracks.

"He said he didn't take orders from niggers," said Mr. Griffin, 75. "A lot of white soldiers didn't want to work under me. I didn't feel well about it, but that's the way it was."

The incident led to the 21-year-old being reassigned to another platoon. There would be at least 10 other reassignments because of similar circumstances in his 28-year military career, as shipping him from platoon to platoon became the way his superiors handled the insubordination and discrimination he incurred.

"I had the rank, but I knew I had to keep my mouth closed and keep a low profile," Mr. Griffin said. "I was a soldier. I didn't have time to analyze what they were doing."

When he enlisted in June 1948 as a 15-year-old from Warren, Ark., Mr. Griffin said, he was accustomed to racism. But the opportunity he hoped the Army would provide for him to eventually pursue his dream of becoming a scientist overshadowed any potential obstacles he expected to face in the military. He saw combat in Korea and was part of the last segregated unit of the Army, the 24th Infantry. He describes his years with those men as the best of his Army career.

"We were lucky to be out in the field fighting when so many of us were cleaning quarters and barracks, mowing lawns and doing other tasks," he said, referring to the military's long-standing practice of putting blacks in service units. "It seemed like being there with the regiment, we had our own code."

In August 1950, he was shot in his ankle, leg and across his face in the Pusan Perimeter. The wounds ended his Army career as a rifleman, and he decided to go into administration at Fort Benning, where he helped soldiers of all races prepare for college.

"It was rewarding to help soldiers that didn't know how to read and write and get an education," he said.

However, he never forgot about the additional challenges black soldiers faced.

"They just looked at us as disciplinary problems. We could be kicked out for any infraction," he said. "We knew what we had to do, so a complaint would only make it worse."

Despite this, Mr. Griffin said he believes the opportunities the military provided were unmatched.

"The Army did the best they could at the time," he said. "Having a job and being able to retire in 20 years was better than the man out on the streets. Consequently, I looked at the military as a positive thing."

Mr. Griffin advanced to the rank of sergeant major by the time he retired in late 1975. By that time, he began to see white soldiers and officers become more accepting of integrated platoons, he said. The Army gave him the opportunity to get a degree in business administration, have a career as a manager at BellSouth and put his four daughters through school.

Looking back at his service years, Mr. Griffin said he's thankful for those who fought for equality in the military.

"It's a far cry from the way it was in the '40s and '50s," he said. "It wasn't an easy journey for us, but I felt like there was success at the end of the line."