Like many institutions since 2020, the U.S. Naval Academy is having its own race relations reckoning. There were several instances last summer in which Academy-connected individuals harmed the public perception of the school’s commitment to equal opportunity. Most notably, in June 2020, retired Captain Scott Bethmann, then the treasurer of the Jacksonville, Florida, chapter of the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and a member of its National Association Board of Trustees, accidentally livestreamed a conversation with his wife laced with profanity and slurs toward African and Asian Americans on Facebook. He immediately apologized and stepped down from those positions.1
In response, Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Sean Buck released a message in September to all midshipmen, faculty, and coaches stating that “I am not naive in thinking that bigotry and racism do not exist, to some extent, within our Naval Academy,” while stressing the criticality of diversity to the Academy’s mission.2 This message also highlighted a variety of initiatives designed to formally introduce constructive racial dialogue into midshipmen training. While this cultural effort on the Yard might seem like a new, 21st-century concept, the historical record shows that having these tough conversations has positively affected the Navy as a whole. There is no better case of this than the leadership example of former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1943.
An important part of Admiral Zumwalt’s legacy is his relentless fight against racism in the Navy during his tenure as CNO. While President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981 established “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin,” the reality for minorities in the Navy in the ensuing 25 years was quite different. The Navy made little effort to specifically recruit or commission African Americans, and the percentage of African Americans in the service from 1956 to 1962 dropped from 9.5 percent to 3.1 percent.3 Further, during this period, the tendency was to assign non-white sailors to less-desirable positions, most often in the steward branch.4
Zumwalt first experienced, and resented, this practice while serving as the executive officer on board the USS Robinson (DD-562) just after World War II. On one occasion, a Filipino steward on board put in a request to become an electrician’s mate. Despite the sailor’s ability and Zumwalt’s own strong approval, Zumwalt found himself fighting for a recommendation at every stage in the chain of command. By the time the request arrived at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Zumwalt had to call five different departments for approval, and only then was the request granted as a “special exception.”5
As Zumwalt’s career progressed, he continued to develop “a healthy contempt for bureaucracy and for the institutional racism in the Navy,” particularly during his tour as a detailer with Naval Personnel Command.6 Zumwalt and his fellow detailers were given a process to follow should the rare black officer be assigned to one of them: Assign him extended recruiting duty followed by a sea tour on a noncombat vessel, usually a tanker or auxiliary ship. Both assignments would provide less competitive professional experience and together eroded the officer’s potential for promotion, effectively ending his career.7 As a result, by the time he became CNO in 1970, Zumwalt was certainly aware that institutional racism existed within the Navy. However, he admitted that “I had no inkling that dealing with race relations should or would be among my most important duties.”8 Nor did he grasp the ingrained nature of racism in the Navy structure, until one critical 14-minute conversation.
In 1970, an officer named Lieutenant Commander William Norman submitted his resignation. As a black man, Norman was fed up with “the unceasing strain of the conflict between being black and being Navy.”9 It is no surprise that he viewed Zumwalt’s invitation to interview for a special assistant position for minority affairs with severe skepticism. Norman was terse and to the point, placing a one-page checklist on the new CNO’s desk, ready to resign if Zumwalt did not agree to it. In Zumwalt’s own words, “He really meant to test me.”10
Norman’s direct approach paid off—Zumwalt not only added him to his staff, but made weekly Tuesday meetings with Norman (usually over breakfast) a top priority.11 Through these discussions, Norman put Zumwalt through a “most upsetting cram course in what it was like to be a member of a minority group in the Navy.”12 William Norman thus became the catalyst to what John Darrell Sherwood, author of Black Sailor, White Navy, calls the “Zumwalt Revolution.”13 Together, Norman and Zumwalt drafted Z-66, one of Zumwalt’s famous “Z-Grams” (communications issued to the entire fleet), which was issued on 17 December 1970.14
Z-66 was not significant for being the Navy’s first equal opportunity policy. In 1965, for instance, then–Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze issued the “Manual on Equal Opportunity and Treatment of Military Personnel” (SecNavInst 5350.6), which stated that every commander was responsible for ensuring that equal career opportunities and treatment existed within their own commands.15 However, SecNavInst 5350.6 did not, to quote Sherwood, “establish a formal equal opportunity bureaucracy within the Navy,” nor did it require commanders to take particular action to combat racial issues.16
Zumwalt’s Z-66 was significant because it ordered that “certain highly visible things be done by a specific date.”17 It was not merely a rebranding of a sentiment in favor of fair treatment, as had been the case under previous CNOs and Secretaries of the Navy. First, each commanding officer was required to billet a minority officer or senior petty officer as their “special assistant for minority affairs,” whose job was to advise the commander on all minority personnel matters. Z-66 also required that all bases and stations employ black barbers and beauticians, exchanges and ships’ stores stock black grooming aids and cosmetics, and that all commissaries stock produce and food items commonly requested by minority groups.18 Finally, Norman would be sent to every major naval base to consult with commanding officers as well as minority servicemen and their dependents to identify specific issues and solutions. The legacy of Z-66 was the foundation that it laid in the Navy—almost 2,800 special positions to advise commanding officers on equal opportunity, as well as a pledge to service members to create “a Navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color, or religion.”19
The path toward equal opportunity in the Navy was not an easy one, and Z-66 was not a panacea for racial strife in the fleet. Zumwalt’s tenure as CNO saw some of the worst incidents of racial unrest in the Navy’s history—in particular, the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and USS Hassayampa (AO-145) riots in 1972. John Sherwood classifies these incidents as a sign of a Navy “completely unprepared for the influx of lower test category blacks that occurred in the early 1970s,” which placed minority sailors under leaders who often failed to train them for ratings other than unrated seamen or to properly address their concerns, with the high operational tempo of the Navy during the Vietnam War making matters worse.20
However, these incidents were largely what convinced a majority of U.S. media and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird that the Navy had an endemic racism problem.21 With the distraction of the Watergate scandal easing political pressure from the Nixon Administration, Zumwalt was able to enact Phase I of the Navy’s Human Goals Program on 14 November 1972.22 The program’s objectives were to increase minority representation among officers and enlisted, to eliminate racial discrimination in the fleet through racial awareness trainings and educational seminars, and to ensure equal opportunity in everything from performance evaluations to technical schools.23
Zumwalt’s successor, Admiral James Holloway, described in particular the training events of Phase I as “shock tactics” designed to bring awareness of racial issues to the fleet.24 Phase II of the program, which lasted until 1978, was geared toward long-term affirmative action in Navy leadership. The credit goes to Holloway for retaining “the most effective elements of the Zumwalt revolution” through the Navy Affirmative Action Plan, which focused on establishing NROTC units at historically black colleges, increasing minority enrollment at the Naval Academy, and providing remedial education for minority enlisted sailors to prepare them for “A” schools or potential commissioning.25
Discussion about sensitive topics such as race relations is never easy. However, the example of Admiral Zumwalt, both as an Academy graduate and as the highest-ranking Navy officer, ought to inspire and encourage midshipmen today to “buy in” to discussions through new forums such as the Midshipman Diversity Team and company-level clubs.26 If the Brigade embraces a similar pursuit of equality for all and a willingness to learn from all its members, it will not only better understand itself, but also be more prepared to lead sailors and Marines who come from every walk of American life.
1. Ben Werner, “Naval Academy Alumni Board of Trustees Member Resigns after Facebook Outburst,” USNI News, 12 June 2020.
2. USNA News Center, “Reflections from the 63rd Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy on Diversity and Inclusion,” 15 September 2020.
3. John Darrell Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War Era (New York and London: New York University Press, 2007), 12.
4. Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy, 12.
5. ADM Elmo Zumwalt Jr., USN, and Elmo Zumwalt III, My Father, My Son (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986), 115.
6. Zumwalt Jr. and Zumwalt III, My Father, My Son, 115.
7. Larry Berman, Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr. 1st ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 257.
8. ADM Elmo Zumwalt Jr., USN (Ret.), On Watch: A Memoir (New York, NY: The New York Times Book Co., 1977), 197.
9. Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy, 43.
10. Zumwalt Jr. and Zumwalt III, My Father, My Son, 116.
11. “An Interview with CNO’s Minority Affairs Officer,” All Hands no. 651, April 1971, 7.
12. Zumwalt, On Watch, 199.
13. Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy, 30.
14. Zumwalt, On Watch, 199.
15. Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy, 30.
16. Sherwood, 30.
17. Zumwalt, On Watch, 204.
18. Zumwalt, 204.
19. Berman, Zumwalt, 262.
20. Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy, 102.
21. Sherwood, 192.
22. Sherwood, 192.
23. Sherwood, 227.
24. Sherwood, 243.
25. Sherwood, 261, 254–255.
26. USNA News Center, “Reflections from the 63rd Superintendent.”