Blacks in the military: After 60 years, black officers rare
WASHINGTON — Blacks have made great strides in the military since it was integrated 60 years ago, but they still struggle to gain a foothold in the higher ranks, where less than 6 percent of U.S. general officers are African American.
At a ceremony commemorating the day President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, military officials and black leaders said the U.S. must not rest on its laurels.
“My hope and expectation is that, in the years ahead, more African Americans will staff the armed forces at the highest levels,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a crowd that included many black former service members. “We must make sure the American military continues to be a great engine of progress and equality.”
While blacks make up about 17 percent of the total force, they are just 9 percent of all officers, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Associated Press.
The rarity of blacks in the top ranks is apparent in one startling statistic: Only one of the 38 four-star generals or admirals serving as of May was black. And just 10 black men have ever gained four-star rank — five in the Army, four in the Air Force and one in the Navy, according to the Pentagon.
As a result, younger African American soldiers have few mentors of their own race. And as the overall percentage of blacks in the service falls, particularly in combat careers that lead to top posts, the situation seems unlikely to change.
Still, officials last week pointed to some historic gains by blacks in the services as the Pentagon commemorates Truman’s signing of an executive order on July 26, 1948, mandating the end of segregation in the military.
Best known among the four-stars is retired Gen. Colin Powell, who later became the country’s first black secretary of state, under President Bush.
In a stirring salute in the Capitol Rotunda last Wednesday, Powell said that as a youngster in 1948, it never occurred to him that he could rise to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But when he joined the military 10 years later, “they no longer cared whether I was black or white, immigrant kid or not,” Powell told the crowd, which was dotted with the red blazers of Tuskegee Airmen — the first group of black fighter pilots allowed into the U.S. Army Air Corps that flew in World War II.
“The only thing my commanders ever told me from 1958 for the rest of my career, is ‘Can you perform?’” he said. “And that’s all we have ever asked for.”
Another of the military’s few black four-stars is retired Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, who in 1961, at age 17, spied an “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster and joined the Army.
The second of 12 children, Wilson grew up in a housing project outside Cleveland. Enlisting in the Army, he said, was the only way he’d get a college education.
As a young recruit, he found that the older, black noncommissioned officers were eager to guide him, and they urged him to try for Officer Candidate School. Over the next 38 years, he rose through the ranks to become a four-star general.
Why haven’t more done the same?
For one thing, Wilson said, “It’s hard to tell young people the sky’s the limit when they look up and don’t see anyone” who looks like them.
According to Pentagon data, as of May:
• 5.6 percent of the 923 general officers or admirals were black.
• Eight blacks were three-star lieutenant generals or vice admirals.
• Seventeen were two-star major generals or rear admirals.
• Twenty-six were one-star brigadier generals or rear admirals.
• Three of the black one-stars were women.
The Army has led the way with black officers, with nearly double the percentage at times over the past three decades as the other services. Blacks represented 11 percent to 12 percent of all Army officers during that time, compared with 4 percent to 8 percent in the Navy, Air Force and Marines.