History of the GI Bill
The creation of the GI Bill of Rights was a landmark social program in the US which drastically changed class structure in America and expanded the opportunity for higher education to black, Latino, and working-class white troops. Understanding why this bill was created and how it became the catalyst for social and economic growth is extremely important for us to grasp the context of its effect on the civil rights movement. Many social activists who would push for change would attain their education through the use of GI Bill. Additionally, the sudden influx of opportunity for people of color to attend a university spiked the desire for people within the black and brown community to get education. A college degree for many within these communities had previously been unattainable due to cost of attendance and family responsibilities.
The veterans of WWI returned to their country as traumatized and often physically broken men who were thrust back into the lives they left behind. As a result, many were unable to readjust to civilian life and became homeless or were relegated to making money by selling apples on street corners. The country was then plunged into a Great Depression which only compounded issues for WWI vets. Fearing that these events would occur again at the end of WWII and as a result create an environment of communistic revolutionary fervor, Republican Representative Hamilton Fish fought hard for the GI Bill of Rights to pass. The GI Bill was originally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 and would eventually evolve into the GI Bill of Rights after passing through Congress and the Senate. The bill provided veterans of WWII with tuition for a college degree, on the job training, technical school, or apprenticeships. It also provided a monthly stipend while vets were attending school or training and loan benefits to buy a home at low interest. Prior to the bill’s passing, only 10% of Americans attended college and in 1938 only 160,000 had a bachelor’s degree. When WWII ended, and the troops returned home, the number of bachelor’s degrees rose to 500,000 by 1950.
Veterans Invade UT Campus
An article in the Alcalde, a magazine published by UT for alumni and students, noted the drastic change to Texas’s campus due to the sudden influx of veterans using the GI Bill. In the fall of 1945 7,027 students were enrolled at the university. However, the following year the enrollment jumped to 17,108, of which 10,849 were veterans. This sudden influx resulted in huge logistical challenges as well as dramatic changes in the culture of the classrooms. Classes had to be added in order to accommodate to the growth and ran until 11 pm. The veterans wanted to focus on more practical career paths which caused enrollment to the business school and law school to increase by a multiple of 10. A professor described a shift in the atmosphere of classes that were now being attended by very focused and worldly student veterans. Classes needed to be organized and presented at a mature level and instructors had to be prepared for challenging questions. One professor stated that “When you made a statement you learned that it better hold water; if not, they were fast to call you down.”
Effects of the GI Bill Varies by Region
The GI Bill was allotted to all service members regardless of race, which lead to the sudden influx of black vets having the opportunity to pursue college degrees once their tour of duty had ended. Veterans returning from WWII would pursue degrees at historically black colleges or northern universities and be elevated into middle-class which would result in their children being able to pursue an advanced education as well. Many colleges in the north that had previously been white were integrated due to school becoming a financially viable option for African-Americans. However, the positive effect differed greatly for returning WWII vets based on their region of birth. For black men born in the south, there was very little difference in educational attainment after WWII compared to before the creation of the GI Bill. This is attributed to the lack of educational options in southern regions of the US since schools were stringently segregated. Rather than assisting southern African-American vets close the economic gap between themselves and whites, the WWII GI Bill exacerbated the disparity since southern whites were able to attain a higher education as well as job training.
Black Veterans as Pioneers for Education at UT
An example of the disparate educational opportunities allotted to African Americans in the South is the case of Hemann Sweatt. During the first wave of WWII vets attending UT, Hemann Sweatt attempted to enroll into the UT School of Law in 1946 and was quickly rejected due to his race. This race-based decision was grounds for the NAACP to file a law suit against the university that would eventually reach the Supreme Court and lead to a victory for Sweatt and the NAACP. Following the decision of Sweatt v. Painter, Heman Sweatt and five other African-American graduate students matriculated into the UT School of Law. Of the original six students, only two graduated and the first one to do so was a WWII veteran by the name of Virgil Lott in 1953. In 1965 Lott became the first black judge in the history of Austin when he was appointed a seat at the Austin Municipal Court.  Although two-thirds of the first class of African-American students did not graduate, it should be noted that they faced great adversity and paved the way for the success of future African-Americans. The members of this class faced Klansmen waiting for them outside of their classroom, death threats through the post or over the phone, and cross burnings on campus. Several black students who matriculated into UT following the graduation of Lott were also veterans. John Phillip Crawford entered UT Law in 1954 after serving as an officer in the Army during for an infantry division in the Korean War. After graduating, Crawford became the first African-American Assistant Attorney General in Texas. Heaullan Lott, a WWII veteran, enrolled into the school of law in 1955 as a mid-law (transfer law student) and graduated in 1956. He had originally attended the law school established for black students in Austin, however he disenrolled in 1948 when the school moved to Houston.
Veterans’ Experiences Upon Returning to UT
Robert Carter and Thurgood Mashall’s winning case, Brown v. Board of Education lead to the first undergrads being admitted to UT in the summer of 1955. Despite the progress of being admitted into UT, the students were greeted with many other issues. Primary needs of food and shelter were difficult for black students to come by near campus and although white students showed public support for integration, the black students still felt isolated. The support offered by fellow UT students included protests, letter writing, sign posting, and effigies hung of state representatives who tried to prevent the admittance of black students into UT. Chandler Davidson, a navy veteran, pushed to change the inequality he saw on campus. He led Students for Direct Action (SDA) in organized protests against movie theaters and restaurants which refused to serve African-Americans. Davidson was outspoken about his beliefs on integration and voiced many of his opinions in a column he wrote for the Daily Texan. This vet organized sit-ins and stand-ins that would take place up to three times a week throughout 1960-1961. Eventually in 1961 business owners along the Guadalupe “Drag” agreed to serve everyone as long as their business did not lose revenue. These businesses became some of the first to integrate in Austin thanks to the help of the SDA.
The experiences of veterans who returned from war to attend UT varied greatly and how they dealt with those experiences also differed. Chandler Davidson served between 1955-1959, a period between the Korean and Vietnam War, after greater progress had been made in integrating the military. Other vets who may have served during WWII or during the initial phases of the Korean War would have largely experienced a segregated force. They would have also dealt with more traumatic experiences that would have long lasting psychological effects. It was not until 1948 when President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 that the military was mandated to provide equal opportunity of service for all members regardless of race. However, the language that corresponded with this order did not specifically detail or define what equality of opportunity meant and how it was to be instituted. Many high-ranking officers ignored this order, believing that Truman would not likely be re-elected and therefore they saw no reason to implement an integration plan.
The black community and civil rights leaders viewed the order as a victory and as an official order for desegregating the forces. Believing in the prospect of being paid well, technically trained, and working within a fully integrated environment, black men began to enlist. However, many of them would find themselves being assigned to labor units by their white commanding officers. During the Korean War, if there was an opportunity allotted to fight on the battlefield, it was due to a low troop census and even then, many black soldiers’ acts of valor were not recognized. Eventually when black infantry units were established in Korea, they were poorly supplied and undertrained for the mountainous terrain they were expected to fight in. Some soldiers described seeing truck loads of dead black bodies being shipped out of camp when they reported for duty to their unit. Tides began to change throughout the Korean war as low troop numbers and changing progressive views of ranking officers resulted in more opportunities for black soldiers to fight for their country rather than perform hard labor in the jungle. Units were sporadically integrated and African-American officers were assigned to lead those units. With greater integration came more instances of maltreatment of black soldiers by white enlisted men, NCOs and Officers. By 1955, the army was desegregated.
During the outbreak of the Vietnam war, feelings of hope that black members’ service for their country would translate into equality when they returned home was perpetuated among the troops and by media. However, other soldiers of color found this highly unlikely stating that black soldiers had fought in every American war and that did not result in universal equality. Claude Fontaine returned to Austin after his time serving in Vietnam and felt that the Black Power movement spoke to his experience as an African-American. He became an active member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, at UT. However, Fontaine was arrested in the spring of 1970 based on circumstantial evidence for robbery and was sentenced for 101 years. His arrest was based on the description provided by a white woman of a black man with an afro wearing sunglasses. It was found that the sunglasses Fontaine was wearing when he was arrested had been purchased after the reported robbery occurred. Despite the evidence that Fontaine could not be proved without reasonable doubt of the crime, he was still convicted.
Other Vietnam vets returned to UT suffering from so much trauma, they didn’t want to interact with any of their peers. Don Dorsey returned to attend school at UT after serving in Vietnam as a Marine Corps sniper. He had previously completed four years of a six-year pharmacy program at UT before enlisting in the Marines. When he returned, he felt that he could not handle continuing the pharmacy program, so he used the GI Bill to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts. The major attracted him due to the solitude of working on independent art projects. Dorsey suffered from what is now recognized as PTSD, but at the time he felt like he had gone crazy. Don states part of the reason he enrolled in the art program was because “ there were a lot of crazies in there, so it was OK to be crazy. You don’t look any different.” PTSD would continue to be a major struggle for Dorsey throughout his life, but he found refuge through connecting with other veterans and helping those suffering with medical issues associated with the war. He eventually became President of the VFW in Austin and was integral to raising money and constructing the Vietnam War Memorial found on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.
 Reginald Wilson, “The G.I. Bill and the Transformation of America,” National Forum75, no. 4 (Fall 1995): 21.
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