Naval Warriors for Diversity at the Top

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, May 25, 2009

It seems appropriate on this Memorial Day to burnish two new red-letter dates in U.S. Naval history:

May 16: The USS Gravely is christened at the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. The state-of-the-art guided missile destroyer is named for Samuel L. Gravely Jr. of Richmond, who became the Navy's first black admiral in 1971. It is the 10th ship named for an African American.

May 22: The nation's first black commander in chief delivers his first military commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Of the 1,036 graduates in the Class of 2009, 89 are Hispanic, 68 Asian American, 45 African American and 21 Native American. There are 203 women.

"By building an institution that is more diverse than ever -- more women, more Hispanics, more African Americans -- the Naval Academy has reaffirmed a fundamental American truth: that out of many, we are one," President Obama said at Friday's graduation.

Lest we forget, however, before anything remotely resembling a diverse institution can be built, somebody has to take on the more arduous task of demolishing the institutional racism that stands in the way.

At the ship christening, Gravely was remembered as a quiet warrior who devised strategies not only for more effective Naval combat but also for advancing more African Americans through the ranks. By 1976, Gravely had risen to command 100 warships and 60,000 sailors and Marines while based at Pearl Harbor.

He retired from the Navy in 1980 and died in 2004, a vice admiral, at age 82.

"Everyone who is different from the white male prototype of a World War II Navy sailor owes him a debt of gratitude," said J. Paul Reason, who in 1996 became the Navy's first -- and so far only -- black four-star admiral.

Gravely joined the Navy in 1942 and fought in World War II on a submarine chaser manned by a mostly black crew.

He attended Virginia Union University and later became the first African American to graduate from a midshipman's school, at Columbia University, in 1944.

The Naval Academy was still a long way from recognizing what Obama called the "fundamental truth." According to one study, of the 22,392 midshipmen who attended the school between 1949 and 1968, 0.02 percent were black. By 1971, race riots were erupting on ship and shore alike as black sailors protested the Navy's lack of equal opportunity.

Even with his achievements, Gravely knew firsthand what they were up against.

"As an officer, Sam was not always allowed into Naval officers' clubs because of his race," Alma Gravely, his widow, told me recently. "Once, when he was in full uniform at a civilian club in Key West, just before being shipped off to war, he was arrested and jailed for 'impersonating an officer.' But he never gave up."

Alma Gravely had christened the USS Gravely by hoisting a bottle of champagne and smashing it with gusto against the steel bow. You could imagine her husband handling racism in a similar fashion.

"He was on a mission," she said. "He wanted to be in the Navy, he wanted to do his best and he wanted to help others do the same."

In 2008, blacks made up roughly 8 percent of the Navy's 42,343 officers -- and only 6 percent of the admiralty. According to a report in the Navy Times, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead wants to see the number of black admirals increased to at least 10 percent by 2037.

That would certainly go a long way toward fulfilling one of the Navy's primary missions as laid out by Obama in his commencement address: "to project American principles and values when you pull into that foreign port, because for so many people around the world, you are the face of America," he said.

Victor Guillory, a black rear admiral who was recently selected to command Naval operations in the Caribbean and South and Central America, described his mission in similar terms.

"We will be focused on building partnerships, on building trust," he told me. "We have a nexus with that part of the world, a common bond."

But it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who said it first in an essay, "Testament of Hope," published posthumously in 1969:

"I have come to hope that American Negroes can be a bridge between white civilization and the nonwhite nations of the world, because we have roots in both," he wrote. "Our very bloodlines are a mixture. I hope and feel that out of the universality of our experience, we can help make peace and harmony in this world more possible."

As a president and even as military commanders.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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