Updated at 8:02 a.m. on December 20.
Congress' repeal of the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" rule is a triumphant step for America's gays, but it's not the first time we've seen the military used as a springboard for expanded rights. During the Civil War, African Americans famously had to fight for the right to fight in the Union Army. Their valor and courage, expemplified by the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and told in the film Glory with Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington (who won an Oscar for his role), and Matthew Broderick, is the most obvious parallel to today's historic legislation.
The valor of freed blacks helped make the case for the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution which followed. During the 20th century, the valor of African Americans in World War II and the protests of African Americans helped make the case for ending segregation in the Armed Forces. President Harry S. Truman ended segregation in the military in a bold move that makes today's turbulent politics seem placid. When he issued the order in 1948, he was at a low ebb in popularity. Truman's executive order came just days after then-Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led a walkout of Dixiecrats from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
They were infuriated by the pro-civil-rights speech of Hubert Humphrey. Truman not only saw the Dixiecrats bolt the party, but he also faced a challenge from the left in the form of former Vice President Henry Wallace. Truman famously won reelection in part because he was able to sway black votes in pivotal northern states like Illinois and Ohio. The end of segregation in the military was, of course, fueled by and helped to fuel the civil rights movement. Likewise, the expanding role of women in the military in the second half of the 20th century into support and combat roles as well as admission to the prestigious service academies helped bolster the women's movement. When women joined the Long Gray Line, as West Point is known, other opportunities in the military and society followed.
Public opinion polls show the military remains one of the revered institutions in American life, especially at a time when government is held in low esteem and the business community is less than loved after a recession and financial crisis built on risky Wall Street gambits. When a group that's historically faced discrimination reaches equal footing in the military, their path in the rest of American life becomes that much smoother.
It's probably instructive that the Dream Act failed the same day the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal passed. The Dream Act would have, among other things, given illegal immigrants who served in the military a path to citizenship. It didn't make it this time, but were it to pass it wouldn't be at all surprising if it turned out to be the opening of a much larger path to legalization. Such is the power of being able to serve in the armed forces.