“We Structured the March on Washington Like an Army Formation”
Oral Interview with Joseph Hairston
(conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina Aiken)
> View as PDF
Joseph Hairston was born in 1922 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Orphaned at age 10, he completed high school and enlisted in October 1940 at the Medical Unit in West Point – one of the only units that had any vacancies for African Americans at the time.
Hairston finished Officer Candidate School (OCS) in October 1942 and was among the very first black officers commissioned in the newly founded 92nd Division. After having been stationed at various military bases throughout the American South for three years, he was deployed to Italy in September 1944 where he served with an artillery battalion.
Hairston remained in the Army after World War II as a plane and helicopter pilot and served in the Korean War. Relieved from active duty during the downsizing of the army in the mid-1950s, Hairston obtained a law degree from Georgetown University and worked as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In the 1960s, he took part in the organization of civil rights demonstrations, including the famous March on Washington in 1963.
Hairston’s first confrontation with open racism both in society and in the military immediately followed his enlistment. Coming off the train in Louisiana, he remembers a white man greeting the arriving black soldiers with the words, “that looks like a bunch of them God damn northern niggers. We’ll have to show them how we do things around here.”
Hairston’s account includes numerous specific recollections of racial discrimination, which he encountered in twenty years of military service. Among others, he describes General Almond’s policy of never having a black soldier outrank white personnel.
At Camp Robinson, Arkansas, Hairston recalls that that black soldiers, unlike their white counterparts, were prohibited from having their wives over for dinner. When one of the black officers challenged this regulation, Hairston remembers that “he had problems [from then on] and was subsequently court martialed and hounded out of the Army.”
Particularly emphasizing the “ineptness of the military leaders,” Hairston’s time in Italy left him equally bitter. Having lost a good friend in Italy, Hairston wondered for a long time whether his death was just part of a 10% casualty quota for black soldiers that had been pronounced as an unofficial policy before the campaign. To him, his experiences in Italy and the military disaster it entailed were exemplary of “the racism of that period, because [the commanding general] is let off scot-free.”
Despite continuing discrimination, Hairston decided to stay in the military after the war. In his view, integration was only followed reluctantly and the mindset of white military leaders was had changed very little after the war. “Racism,” Hairston remembers, simply continued “in different ways.”
Although Hairston could only detect minor differences in the general attitudes towards black soldiers after the war, his own demeanor had changed significantly. He was less willing to accept racial discrimination and recalls that in the “years before I would have been more submissive […] but having fought a couple of wars it just wasn’t in my nature to be subservient.”
Hairston was able to defend his rights primarily through his knowledge of Army regulations – an experience that sparked his interest in the study of law. At the same time, he applied his military experience when helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Convinced that protest could only be successful if it stayed non-violent, Hairston and Julius Hopson, the DC organizer for CORE who had served in Italy with him, imposed a communications structure that corresponded to that of the military. As Hairston remembers, “the system we used, was an army formation. That is a regimental setup. And there was no violence.”
[On Discrimination when Joining the Army]
Hairston: One day I saw two soldiers in town and I noticed how much attention the girls paid to men in uniform. And I said, ‘That’s for me.’ And my friend, my high school friend and I went to the recruiting station. And that was my first real contact with discrimination. Because he enlisted and was gone the next day. And I kept going back and the recruiting Sergeant wouldn’t, didn’t tell me what was happening, why I wasn’t being processed.
And finally, after a couple of months he explained to me that the only way I could get in the service was to find a black Unit with a vacancy. And so he gave me a list of all of the black Army Units, U.S. And I wrote to every one of them. Because when you tell me I can’t do something that’s when I get involved. And each one of them replied they had no vacancies. The last one that I contacted was the, a Squadron of the 10th Calvary, which was at West Point. They train the cadets how to ride horses. And they wrote back that they had no vacancy, but they understood that the Medical Unit at the main hospital had a vacancy. That’s the only Unit that was not on my list.
I wrote to the Medical Unit and they said they had a vacancy and they would be willing to interview me to see whether or not they would allow me to enlist for a job that paid $21.00 a month. So I got on the train and rode to West Point and enlisted on the 21st of October, 1940.
[On his first experience with Southern racism]
Hairston: Camp Livingston. […] that’s where I got my first real indoctrination of discrimination. Now I grew up in a small town and there was racism. But in small towns, where you’re not a real problem. And so when I left West Point we were on a New York Central, you got the standard Army Pullman, I mean, you rode Pullman, until we got to St. Louis.
And at St. Louis they, and the trains were integrated. At St. Louis they put us on the segregated train to go from St. Louis down to Alexandria, Louisiana. And there, there was no dining facilities, so we had to jump off the, when the train stopped at the station and run in through the back door to get sandwiches to come back to eat. And then my first, that was my first shock.
The second shock, I got off the train in Alexandria, Louisiana. And there were a couple of “crackers” just standing on the thing. And the one “cracker” said to the other, and this is an exact quote. He said, ‘That looks like a bunch of them God damn northern niggers. We’ll have to show them how we do things around here.’ That was my first exposure to the real south.
[On a riot in Alexandria, Louisiana]
Hairston: I almost got killed in a riot [in Alexandria, Louisiana]. Very little is known about that riot. General Davis, Senior investigated it. But you won’t find much in the books.
The situation in Alexandria, Lee Street was the center of the black community. And it was a long block, it would be the equivalent of about two or three regular city blocks. There were no cross streets. And you had these, we referred to them as juke joints that were shoulder to shoulder. And on a weekend night that was the only place black troops could go. You had Camp Livingston, Fort Polk, it was in Camp Lee, Camp Breckinridge, two other bases. And all these troops came into this small area and they were, it was like maggots.
And a soldier got drunk and the black MP’s had him in custody. A couple of white MP’s came in and took him from the black, he was no problem to the black MP’s. But because they intruded then the black troops all around beat up the white MP’s and chased them out of the area. Took their weapons and chased them out of the area. They came back reinforced within about a half hour. The same thing happened.
And then by that time, if you can imagine a long block, but at the end of the long block you had a cross street. And I, the good Lord got me to the cross street. And I was at the corner when the white police, civilian police, came down the street to this mob of people. And as they got to the corner I just happened to be standing there, a white policeman pushed me in the chest and he said, ‘Get out of my way, nigger.’ And a moment later opened fire, point blank into the crowd.
Well, when I heard the gunfire I left. And I went several blocks away into a movie. And when I came out of the movie that night all the blacks were cleared out of town and I was immediately hustled on the vehicle and sent back to Camp Livingston. And we were restricted to the post for 30 days before we could go to town. But General Davis investigated that. But you’ll find very little in the archives as to what really happened. Nobody really knows how many people died. But I saw the point blank firing into that crowd.
Morehouse: And there are many other white policemen there?
Hairston: Yeah, they were shoulder to shoulder. Lee Street is the name of the street and they were shoulder to shoulder across the street marching abreast of each other and shooting point blank into the crowd.
Morehouse: Did the black troops have any guns?
Hairston: No. We were unarmed. In fact, you weren’t allowed to go to town with weapons. […] The black MP’s I don’t think were armed. The black MP’s that made the, that initially took the soldier under. He was obviously drunk in uniform. And they took him, they had him under control and were in the process of taking him. And the rest of the troops paid no attention to it. Hey, this soldier’s drunk. So the MP’s got him. No big deal. It was just the fact that the white MP’s preempted the black MP’s that caused the disturbance.
[On integrated Officer Candidate School in Fort Seal]
Hairston: Now the other thing about OCS, while the Army was segregated generally, OCS was integrated. And I was assigned to a tent alphabetically.
Morehouse: Oh, so you weren’t kept in a separate black . . . ?
Hairston: No, no. […] I’m a Fort Seal, but the Fort Seal OCS is completely integrated.
At Fort Seal it was not segregated. So that you just looked, if you looked at the alphabetical roster, I was with the H’s and I remember, the only name I remember at this late stage is a guy named Hare. And the reason, see, my name is Hair with stone on the end with the E off. So I was the next cot to him. We were alphabetical. But now I came close to being kicked out of OCS because I was too young.
The officer in charge of our class called me in and suggested that at age 20 I was a bit young to become a Second Lieutenant. And it had nothing to do with my grades or my performance. I was just too young. And I explained to him that I had been on my own since I was 12 years old. That I was a lot more mature than my age. And I convinced him. And so I finished with my class.
[On Racism in Camp Robinson, Arkansas]
Hairston: We were both in the 599th Field Artillery, both sent to Camp Robinson. And the two of us were probably the two first black artillerymen assigned to the Division, because our OCS class finished on the same day the Division was activated. […] But now there was some racism that occurred there [in Camp Robinson] That was significant.
The racism on the post, the, we went in intensive training when we got there. And the combat team commander was a, his name was Sterling A. Wood. […] He became the Chief of Staff of the Far East Command. I knew him, I met him in Okinawa some years later. Well, two things occurred before that.
We were training night and day and because we didn’t get a chance to go home at regular times it was the practice for the officers to have their wives come out to the post and eat dinner at the officer’s mess. Well, some of the white wives didn’t like the idea of eating in the same building with the black officer’s wives. So they complained to the Battalion Commander and he placed the officer’s mess off limits to the black wives.
There was a Lieutenant, whose name was Dolphin G. Thompson. He was here in Washington 10 or 15 years ago. But Thompson was probably the kind of officer who would end up being a General Officer. He had that charisma. You know, only a few people have that, even as a Second Lieutenant. In fact, I became the adjunct battalion some years later. And I discovered that he’d been recommended for promotion to First Lieutenant a couple of months after OCS. Which was unusual.
Well, when this happened, when the Battalion Commander separated us and told us that our wives couldn’t come, Thompson who was a man six foot something, a very imposing person, stood up and said to the Battalion Commander, ‘I assume that means no wives will come to the officer’s club.’ The Battalion Commander became very angry. He said, ‘No, I said, your wives.’ And Thompson, a Second Lieutenant talking to a light Colonel, says, ‘If any wife comes, my wife will come.’ From then on he had problems and was subsequently court-martialed and hounded out of the Army.
The second incident, the Combat Team Commander, now you understand a Combat Team is Artillery Battalion and the Infantry Regiment. The Colonel now in charge of the Combat Team is Sterling A. Wood. And he felt that the black officers needed additional training. So he set up a training program that tried to mimic West Point. You know, the square eating where you sit and you don’t speak? You know, all of that garbage you do as a cadet. And one Sunday he called the black officers together in the theater. And he said, he seemed to be dissatisfied with our progress.
And he said to us ‘You people constitute 10 percent of the population of this country. And I’m going to see that you incur 10 percent of the casualties.’ Now that shocked a hell of a lot of us. And that affected my thinking of the Army for a long time after that, because I lost a very good friend in Italy. And I don’t know that it was directly connected but his having said that and loosing a friend on a patrol, which I thought was ill-advised, was stupid, I figured he was out doing it. I don’t even know if he was still commanding the Regiment then. But that’s what he said to us. And that stayed with me, well, now it’s as though it happened yesterday.
[On General Almond’s Policy of not promoting black soldiers]
Hairston: But back at Huachuca, the other thing, that’s where we became aware of the fact that General Almond’s policy, that no black officer would be in command of a white officer. So at that period of time, most of my OCS classmates were First Lieutenants or Captains. We were still Second Lieutenants. And my promotion went in regularly. In fact, General Colbran, who was the (U) Commander, they called him Big Red, uh, personally recommended me. The promotion comes back. It went in monthly because my Battalion Commander was my friend also. And it came back saying, ‘No Vacancies.’ And yet the white officers went in and were routinely promoted. That lasted until we got to Italy.
Morehouse: You got promoted by . . .?
Hairston: By Mark Clark, because he visited my battery and his standard question when he was visiting front line troops was, ‘How long have you been in grade?’ Because of the bad administration, you know, the paperwork.
Morehouse: Oh, which could have been lost?
Hairston: Right. Army Commanders were authorized to promote up through the grade of Captain. So I got promoted by General Clark turning to his aide and said, ‘He’s a First Lieutenant.’ But at that time I’d been in grade two years and two months.
He’s just doing it because troops that had been in combat longer than I, no promotions weren’t being processed. So he could do it. He had the authority from the War Department to do that. And I got promoted on that basis.
Morehouse: And you don’t feel like it was something that he was doing, it was just something that was like his regular job?
Hairston: Right. No, because the other history of Mark Clark shows that he was a definite racist. He supported General Almond in his racist thing.
[On German Prisoners of War]
Hairston: So I was on the first boat load coming home [to the United States after the war]. But there at the Port of Embarkation was the interesting thing. You had German war prisoners, German war prisoners could eat in the establishments and we couldn’t. […] That was a horrible thing.
[On black soldiers being punished for challenging racial discrimination]
Hairston: Another thing at Huachuca, there was a time when there were about 30 officers in the guard house for various indiscretions. Most of it resulting from the racist treatment. In fact, it was rather interesting, they let them out daily for exercise. And they’d dress in their dress uniforms. And march in formation at the guard house at north post. They’d march in formation during their exercise. But fully dressed in what, you know, in those days they called them pinks and greens.
But all of them were people who resisted or fought against the racism they were subject to. [They were there for] individual acts where some local, some Unit Commander decided they infringed, and the rules were very strict with respect to the behavior of blacks.
Morehouse: That must have been something for you all to see them marching.
Hairston: Well, and that’s what they did, they did it to make a statement. It didn’t go very far but at least it gave them a sense of reacting to injustice.
[On the “ineptness” of military leaders in the Italian campaign]
Hairston: I was a Forward Observer with a Forward Company [in Italy] And my friend was a platoon leader and he went out on patrol. And the patrol brought you a path around the face of a mountain. So you were fully exposed. And he and I went together, and we usually took turns leading the patrol. You know, there’s no safe place on a patrol. And so, we had just changed positions. And he stepped on a mine and was killed.
And see, my thought process, and I don’t know that this is true, was that was a part of the ineptness of our leaders. In it’s not the kind of patrol, in my judgment, you should have been doing in daylight. Where you’re in full face of the enemy. And where you didn’t have the equipment to check for mines.
But then you see, if you look at the history, there’s so many dumb things that were done. You’ve probably heard of the Chinqualli Canal. We lost more tanks for that size of action than any place in the whole war, because of stupidity of clearing a narrow lane through a mine field across a creek. The Germans sat up on the hill and watched them do it. And they sent the tanks down in single file.
Their tanks couldn’t move left or right because of the mines. And as the couple of tanks got up on the far side then the Germans just knocked them off. And then knocked the tank off so they couldn’t retreat. Now that was just plain dumb. You don’t use tanks that way.
And yet, General Almond ends up three star General in the Far East Command. And he, he wrote the Division had failed, I mean, his official comments were that the Division had failed to perform. And yet, generally speaking, if you are the Commander and an organization has failed, you share the responsibility. But in his, and that’s what I say, it shows the racism of that period, because he’s let off scot-free.
[On racism in the army after World War II]
Hairston: I made a decision to stay in. And then I went through another series of racist type of things. They didn’t know what to do with us. There was a group of about six artillery officers, all from the 92nd Division. And they, they really didn’t know, we were First Lieutenants, but they didn’t know what to do with us.
So they first sent us to the Infantry Replacement Training Center at McClellan, Fort McClellan, Alabama. There was nothing for an artilleryman to do there. I was placed in a Company, a Training Company, commanded by a Lieutenant that was a junior to me.
He rated me and he rated me low and he had no authority to rate me. I had to fight all the way to the Defense Department to have the rating expunged. His low rating would have put me so low if I would have been, I should have been kicked out.
And so, my file shows that that was appealed all the way to the Department of Defense and they expunged it. But it was one of those things that, it was just done. The guy didn’t dislike me. It was just a matter of black officers weren’t worth anything more than a satisfactory. Not even a very satisfactory.
[…] Now one of the problems that I’ve had, that I didn’t learn, is I protested when things went wrong. There were a number of protests where I did it in writing. And when I got to Fort Knox, among other things, Fort Knox was in the armored school. Again, we had no background in armor. We had no Artillery Battalion. We were assigned to an Armored Unit. And there were four quarters on the backside of the post, away from everything. And we got housing on the post.
But my daughter then was old enough to go to kindergarten or first grade. And there’s a school right in the middle of the post, an elementary school, and I applied to enroll her there and they wouldn’t enroll her because she was black. And I appealed to the Post Commander. And he was sorry he couldn’t do anything about it.
They sent her to Elizabethtown, which is about 30 miles away. And so a staff car, driven by a WAC, drove up to my quarters every day and picked up my daughter. She sat in the back seat like a little princess. She’d cross her legs. And they drove her to, 30 miles away, to elementary school. And in the evening they brought her back home. Well, that probably got old, so a month later I got transferred to Fort Benning.
Morehouse: So they never let her in the post school?
Hairston: They never let her in.
[On his experiences with the integrated army]
Hairston: Well, my first impression was that group of five or six [African American] artillery officers they didn’t know what to do with. The Army really didn’t know how to deal with us, because after Truman’s Executive Order we were supposed to be integrated. But the senior officers in the Army were of the old school. And that wasn’t something that they cotton to very well. My experience in Korea though, which was really the first integrated combat situation, they worked very well.
[And] things changed. Because, you see, that protest that I told you about at Fort Benning. Even in the deep South, see, years before I would have been more submissive to the program. But having fought a couple of wars, or a, at that time, one war, I just, it just wasn’t in my nature to be subservient. But then racism continued in other ways.
[On organizing the March on Washington, 1963]
Hairston: Right. I’m working at the IRS. And my Division Director is kind of a nice guy but he’s a racist. The IRS was one of the most racist, next to the agriculture. Agriculture is the worst. The IRS was next. And I’m one of the first blacks at IRS. And my concern at that time, I’ve always been an activist, was that with this march coming, coming up, that I was afraid there would be violence. And that the whole movement would be discredited because of the violence. Now at that time CORE, Congress of Racial Equality. And what’s that guy from CORE? He’s an old man who teaches. He’s blind, he’s lost two legs. Farmer.
James Farmer. James Farmer was the head of CORE. The local guy as head of the Washington CORE was a guy named Hopson, Julius Hopson. Julius Hopson and I served in Italy together. And so the arrangement with the leadership then was that we would form a, what did we call it? We didn’t call it security, but something like security. Marshals. Marshal. The idea of if violence broke to contain the violence, to prevent it from erupting. So that was our mission. Now Hopson was a charismatic type of leader. That is to inspire people to get involved. And we, we planned for a while and nothing was happening.
And then we weren’t able to put together a structure, how were we going to do this. You see, it’s one thing if you’re gonna have tens of thousands of people now. But how do you structure a marshal system where you can control it, understand what you’re doing.
So the idea that I gave, which ended up the system we used, was an Army formation. That is a Regimental setup. Where you have a Regimental Commander at the top. That’s Hopson. Then you have three battalions. And then each battalion was five Companies. And so you had your groups organized into Companies with a radio.
And the idea was if there was any problem the Company would seek to surround it. And report up the line by radio to get the police in and to keep the thing from blowing up. And then the Companies would report, because you weren’t sure of communication, to a battalion and the battalion would report to a Regiment and that was where I was. Now since I was in the sensitive IRS position I couldn’t take any publicity for it so Hopson got all the credit. But I did it.
We wanted to be sure there was no violence because violence would have discredited the whole thing. And there was no violence. The famous, you see the famous picture of Martin Luther King giving his speech, if the camera goes up I was on top of the monument.
Because at that point with my radio, I had radio communication with all levels. You know, from Company, battalions and up. Plus I could see everything. And I had a police major beside me, who had communication to the police force. And idea was, the police, of course, didn’t have enough people to fan out through the crowd.
So the idea was if there was a disturbance it come up the line to me, I would tell the police person, and then the police, you know, through their system they would have the police and, or whatever force was necessary. Fortunately everything was cool.
[Excerpts from Interview with Joseph Hairston conducted by Maggi Morehouse, Washington, DC 1998]