On break during my junior year at Michigan State University, I met a black man who was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. When I asked what he did, he invited me to his office. He encouraged me to consider joining the Navy. He was Dennis Nelson, one of the “Golden Thirteen,” the first group of African American naval officers.
I took his advice, and after completing Officer Candidate School, I was commissioned as an ensign in September 1959. I was the only black person in my class. From those early days to my release from active duty in October 1968, I do not recall a single issue because of my ethnicity. I never felt that being a black naval officer was a burden. It was an honor, a responsibility, a privilege, and a challenge, but never a burden.
During the early 1960s, there were 15 African American officers in the Navy and Marines Corps stationed on Oahu, Hawaii. Their ascension was storybook:
- Samuel L. Gravely was commanding officer of a destroyer. He rose to the rank of vice admiral.
- Bill Powell rose to rear admiral.
- Frank E. Petersen Jr. and Gary Cooper rose to lieutenant general and major general, respectively.
- Buddie Penn, a fighter pilot, made captain. During the George W. Bush administration, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations, Logistics, and Environment.
- Cornelius Hopper became Vice President for Health Affairs for the University of California.
- I served in the Reagan administration as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.
Along with John Merchant, Earl Carter, Alger Wilson, Carl Bell, Wesley Brown (the first African American to graduate from the Naval Academy), Gary Byrd, Reggie Powe, and Gordon Fisher, we became a close-knit group and mutual support system. We had an unwritten code: “Do not whine; perform.”
Since Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s tenure as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO, 1970–74), 57 African Americans have achieved flag rank in the U.S. Navy and 25 have achieved general officer rank in the Marine Corps. So I was perplexed when Lieutenant Commander Desmond Walker recently wrote, “After five decades of Navy innovation, progress, and change, we find ourselves back where we started. Some may feel things have gotten better, but I’m certain a great number of black officers in the Navy feel little has truly changed.”1 I believe the Navy has made progress. What has not progressed as far, however, is the underlying culture of the United States. African Americans have been betrayed by the failure of the United States to honor the full social contract of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
I credit my experience in the Navy for many of my accomplishments. I forged lifelong friendships. The rigorous academic experience of the Naval Postgraduate School helped me excel in a graduate program at Catholic University and at Harvard Business School. Because of the honor, mission focus, camaraderie, education, travel, and incredible opportunities, I have consistently encouraged people, men and women, to serve in the U.S. Navy.
This does not mean I did not face challenges. I had difficulty getting off-base housing in Northern Virginia in April 1965. I was denied housing in some 39 apartments or single-family homes. In 1968, I was assigned to the Bureau of Naval Personnel. With three other African American officers, I participated in the Minority Officer Recruiting Effort program. We actively recruited prospective naval officers and wrote policy papers. I appeared on television shows, did public service announcements, and appeared on NROTC book covers. Despite our initiatives, the Navy was reticent about implementing our recommendations, such as establishing NROTC units at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
In 1968, there were about 300 flag officers in the Navy and some 75 in the Marine Corps. All were white. Of the 81,000 active-duty naval officers, about 250 were African American. Most of us realized that the Navy was historically a racist institution. It is less racist and sexist today—although in May of this year, New York Times journalist Helene Cooper noted that while 43 percent of the 1.3 million U.S. armed forces personnel are “of color,” only 2 of 41 four-star officers are black.2
It is challenging to discuss ethnic issues. As a native New Yorker, I am aware that other ethnic and cultural groups also must deal with challenges. But if we want the Navy to be a greater and more viable institution, we must fight for the advancement of black and female sailors and Marines, up to the level of Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant.
When Admiral Michelle Howard became Vice Chief of Naval Operations in July 2014, she was the highest-ranking woman in U.S. military history and well positioned to become CNO. Admiral James Stavridis said the “grit, grace and resilience with which she has met and conquered the challenges she has faced offer a powerful example to us all.”3 I believe President Barack Obama missed an opportunity to reward a great leader and also break a long- standing barrier.
It will be a great day for our Navy, our nation, and the world when we focus on our humanity above ethnicity and gender.
As it is, the old guard is alive and well, and the vestiges of institutional sexism remain in play. It will take a courageous and enlightened President to nominate a CNO who departs from the historical culture of the Navy.
The Navy has made progress since the first African American officers, the Golden Thirteen, were commissioned in March 1944. From an organizational perspective, however, the “tone at the top,” as demonstrated by Admiral Zumwalt, is critical.
Black officers do not carry a burden. What we have is a responsibility to honor the service of all warriors and, in particular, African Americans who have paid the high price for inclusion and excelled under institutionally segregated conditions. These include the Buffalo Soldiers, Golden Thirteen, Montford Point Marines, Tuskegee Airmen, Harlem Hellfighters, and Triple Nickles.
I have visited more than 50 nations around the world. What makes the United States unique is that we can change the calculus of our democracy and our trajectory. To continue to do this, and have the respect of nations, we must regain the moral high ground. The tone at the top is the predicate for responsive leadership, especially when it comes to diversity.
Diversity is not for expediency or window dressing; it is an imperative that will promote harmony, harness the energy of all our sailors and Marines, and maintain our combat edge. Admiral Zumwalt set the standard for transformative leadership. It is up to the current leaders, at all levels, to reinvigorate his principles to set the Navy back on course.
Let us not forget the words of President John F. Kennedy: “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”
1. LCDR Desmond Walker, USN, “The Burden of a Black Naval Officer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 6 (June 2020).
2. Helene Cooper, “African-Americans Are Highly Visible in the Military, But Almost Invisible at the Top,” The New York Times, 25 May 2020.
3. ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), Sailing True North (New York: Penguin Press, 2019).