Final Public Oral Exam: Skyler Gordon

Militarizing Civil Rights: The Institutionalization of Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Armed Forces, 1966–1976
Monday, May 20, 2024, 1:00 pm3:00 pm


Event Description


Joshua B. Guild, adviser
Margot Canaday
Alison Isenberg
Reena Goldthree
Adriane D. Lentz-Smith, Duke University


Militarizing Civil Rights: The Institutionalization of Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Armed Forces, 1966-1976 traces the development of “equal opportunity” as a concept borne of the civil rights movement and shaped within the hierarchical structure of the U.S military to meet the demands of the U.S. war in Vietnam and later postwar demobilization. In response to accusations of racial discrimination and growing tensions between black and white servicemen across the States and abroad, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and armed services developed equal opportunity between 1966 and 1976 as the military’s equivalent of equal employment opportunity and other federal civil rights legislation reserved for civilian federal employees. Like equal employment opportunity, equal opportunity guaranteed participation in the military free from discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, or national origin; however, given the military’s authoritarian command structure, itself antithetical to the democratic foundations of civil rights, the DoD and services both defined and defended themselves against civil rights, using the language of “equal opportunity” to jibe equality with military hierarchy. This tension between equality in the form of equal opportunity programs, race relations education, and human relations personnel, and hierarchy expressed through the “chain of command,” led DoD and service officials, officers and enlistees, congressmembers, and civil rights advocates to make several attempts at reconciliation. They debated the purpose of equal opportunity policies, who should create and control them, and how democratic they should be. Militarizing Civil Rights places the civil rights movement and the role of the federal government in advancing civil rights squarely in the context of wartime labor management, which demanded a militarized civil rights agenda in the interests of military effectiveness and national security. As such, this project understands servicemembers as federal employees and the development of equal opportunity as a militarized form of equal employment opportunity outlined in federal civil rights legislation. Ultimately, Militarizing Civil Rights challenges the conventional historiography of civil rights and the civil rights movement as inherently democratic and racially progressive. What is progress, when a tool of democracy is reshaped for an antidemocratic, hierarchical, and inherently unequal institution that perpetuates violence?

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Lee Horinko Reed
Area of Interest
African American
Imperial History
Military History
War & Society
20th Century
United States
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense