In 1981, I gave up a good paying and safe job to take a pay cut and join the Navy. Why? I joined for the adventure. After all, “Join the Navy and See the World.” I served in the military for 34 years even though I often felt the heartache of separation from my family, and my service provided no great financial reward. Again, you may ask, “Why join?” I enjoyed doing something that I viewed as meaningful and doing it with people I respected. During my career, I served with men and women of every ethnicity, culture and part of the world. We are all very different, but my experience taught me that we are stronger together.
Today’s military is more isolated from the average American, yet more diverse than ever before. Less than one percent of our citizens serve but that group is more diverse than most other organizations, companies and entities in our country. Thank goodness! We have been able to keep a ready and viable force through several decades of war only because we employ and deploy a diverse force and allow them to serve in a meritocracy. The roots of this diverse force are as old as the nation. Last year, I wrote a blog titled “The Benefits of Building a Diverse Workforce,” in which I highlighted how diversity has been a cornerstone of success for the U.S. military. As we celebrate African American History Month, let us remember the contributions Black men and women have made to our military.
President Trump has proclaimed the theme for this year’s African American History Month to be “African Americans in Times of War.” The theme celebrates the history of African Americans and marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice. When he announced the 2018 theme, President Trump highlighted African American military service from the American Revolution to present day: “For far too long, African Americans bravely fought and died in the name of freedom, while at the same time struggling to attain equality, respect and the full privileges of citizenship. Because of their love of country, these heroes insisted on serving and defending America despite racial prejudice, unequal treatment, diminished opportunities and segregation.”
Blacks at War
In the Revolutionary War, slaves fought for freedom on both sides, but there were far more who supported the colonials with the hope that the nation’s freedom would be shared. In a recent blog post, “The Long Blue Line: A History of African-Americans in Coast Guard Combat,” the U.S. Coast Guard shared the exploits of African Americans throughout 228 years of Coast Guard history, noting that
African Americans have been the first minority group to fight and the first to sacrifice. During the early years of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, many African American cuttermen were slaves as well as free men of color. Regardless of their status, Blacks served side-by-side with their white shipmates.
During the War of 1812, Black men served on the British and American sides, primarily in the naval squadrons. In the middle of the American Civil War, Frederick Douglass called on Black men to join the fight and stake their claim to citizenship in his speech titled “Men of Color, to Arms.” He told them,
During the Civil War, 25 Black men were awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest recognition for bravery in the U.S.
Black troops continued to serve in the Indian Wars, Spanish American War and other military actions of the 1800s, but the nature of their service changed. Fewer served at sea as conditions for sailors improved, and more, like the southwest “Buffalo Soldiers,” served in remote locations because they had lower desertion rates. Black men continued to find the military to be a place where they could advance in spite of the country’s racial climate.
Despite its unpopularity with the president and the nation, we eventually found ourselves embroiled in World War I. Black soldiers were encouraged into service, even by lifelong pacifists like W. E. B. Du Bois. In his 1918 article “Close Ranks,” he argued:
This is the crisis of the world. For all the long years to come men will point to the year 1918 as the great Day of Decision, the day when the world decided whether it would submit to military despotism and an endless armed peace— if peace it could be called— or whether they would put down the menace of German militarism and inaugurate the United States of the World.
We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder without our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.
World War II brought advancement in the military and other areas. More Black women and officers were beginning to fill the ranks, especially in the Army. The performance of units like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Ball Express, the Montford Point Marines and the Golden Thirteen and individuals like Doris “Dorie” Miller and Olivia Hooker pushed back against the notion that people of color were incompetent and incapable. I believe that the exploits, sacrifices and determination of these patriots of color drove President Truman to order the integration of the military in 1948—long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Black participation in the military continued to escalate, mostly in the enlisted ranks until President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces and eventually led to the end of segregation in the services. In spite of challenges and threats, many people of color seized this opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism to the American dream, to advance themselves, to learn and grow and to continue the long struggle for respect from the nation they helped build. During the Vietnam War, Black soldiers were over-represented at the war’s start, especially in combat units. Despite widespread denigration of military service and a rise in riots on post and at sea as the cultural winds of the country swirled in the 60s and early 70s, the number of Black soldiers in the military rose, especially among women.
There have been many changes in the demography of our nation since its inception. There has been a commensurate change in the policies designed to help our nation live up to its creed and evolve into a more fair and inclusive culture. From the abolitionist movement to modern diversity and inclusion efforts, our nation and its institutions have worked to ensure that today’s military is more diverse and more effective than ever. Our military performance over the last 14 years of war in the Middle East is testimony to that. There are still many challenges—the gains made in improving inclusion, especially at senior levels, have not been consistent—but affinity groups such as the NNOA, The ROCKS, AFCOMAP and Blacks in Government have worked to address inequities and improve the recruitment, retention and professional development in the services. Their mission is not nearly complete.
The Way Forward
Our nation’s future warfighting needs demand full participation from all our talent to defend the freedoms of our great land. Skilled warriors in many domains are urgently needed to serve in military operations. The battle for talent between industry, academia and the military is all too obvious. Continuing to rely on the small portion of Americans and their children who serve is not sustainable. We need a more inclusive and diverse force. The military has not isolated the greater sins of society from its members. Harassment, bullying and discrimination in hiring and advancement are not new. For proof, you just need to look back to the plight of the Buffalo Soldiers, the lynching of Black WWI vets and the poor treatment of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Golden Thirteen and others who served a nation that did not treat them with the respect they richly deserved.
So why did I, and why do Black people, other minorities and women keep charging forward? Because there is opportunity and a chance to break the ceiling just a little bit more for those who follow.
Retired Navy Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris is LMI’s senior client relations executive for the defense sector. His Navy service culminated as the vice director for operations to chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also commanded the U.S. Fourth Fleet, leading U.S. naval forces assigned to the U.S. Southern Command.