Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race and Military

BOND: Now, in all of this what role, if any -- and I believe it must play some -- does race play? I don't mean race in guaranteeing you success, but just race generally. Here you are, a racial minority in an overwhelmingly white institution, at a time in American life when racism is prevalent everywhere. How is this coming into your life?

THEUS: Well, you see, at that time, at the times that we have discussed, we were -- I was in an organization that was all one group, was all black.

BOND: Right, but you're in the middle, this all-black group is in the middle of this larger white group.

THEUS: That is correct, that's correct. So race was not an issue at that point -- was not an issue, did not really become much of an issue until later on after I was commissioned and moved into a more integrated society, if you will, small society of military people. Now when I arrived at Erding Air Depot, Germany after the Armed Forces were integrated. Of course we had, had some people there who were avowed racists, but we had a commander who called all of his senior people together and stated to them, categorically -- and I recall that I was advised about this later on -- so that he had them all in with theatre. And he was an old cavalry officer, even though in the Air Corps, he was an old -- he had originated in the cavalry. He always walked around with his leggings and the big, what do you call it, the pants, you know?

BOND: Blouse, pants that they --

THEUS: So anyhow, and he carried this riding crop, and he came, went into this theater and he said, after the customary courtesies of everybody coming to attention and so forth. He walked in, slammed this crop on the desk that was up front, and said, "I have now a few words to say to you this morning." He said, "We're going to have the first Negro officers coming to this base very shortly." And he said, "Whether I believe in it or not, is not important." He said, "We have our orders. Everyone's to be treated equally here, fairly, no one is to be insulted, and if anyone wants to get themselves into deep trouble, the best way to get yourself thrown off this base and completely out of the Air Force is for you to make any problems whatsoever. Do you understand this?" Nobody said anything. He slammed his crop down and he said, "You're dismissed," and he left. Now, you and I know again that issuing an order like that will only, at best, keep individuals from exhibiting any -- outwardly any prejudices.

BOND: Right.

THEUS: But they will not necessarily eliminate the prejudices, the biases that have been long embedded in them. And so surely -- sure, we encountered some problems. Not many confrontations on the base, but in the local community, not much except where the feelings of restaurateurs has been poisoned by members of the majority race. Where there was some concern about fraternizations of black GIs with the German women.

BOND: German women, yeah.

THEUS: That sort of thing. But basically it went along fairly smoothly, certainly much more smoothly than it had in any of our contacts in the civilian communities prior to going into the service. But then, things were changing and we were in an environment where you were expected to obey and even if you disagreed with the particular situation, you were obeyed for the most part or you just walked away from it.

BOND: And, of course, this is a perfect example of leadership. He gives the command.

THEUS: Exactly.

BOND: He lets the command under him know that this isn't a question of liking, disliking. This is an order.

THEUS: That's exactly right.

BOND: This is what we're going to do.

THEUS: Exactly.

BOND: And if you can't obey the order then there's no place for you here.

THEUS: That's right.

BOND: And you can't do that in civilian life -- or you can try, but you can't do it.

THEUS: You know it won't work.

BOND: So you arrive there and you find a relatively benign situation.

THEUS: Yes, exactly.

BOND: In part because of what this man has done. And what's your next step?

THEUS: Well, of course, I was in this small organization that provided computer support for the Depot, through the area there. Fortunately, those who were appointed above me where broad-minded people, they were not solicitous, but they saw to it that everything that was done in the organization, my wife and I were included in it, from a social standpoint. There was no question or problems at all about duty performance because, again, I made sure that there was nothing that was left undone that was in my area of responsibility. And so I think that that helps, too. That helps, too. So there was no room for criticism there at all. Got through that I thought very, very well indeed, primarily because we had good leaders and primarily because I think that I did my job to the best of my ability.