Three years after Julius Becton joined the Army in 1943, he quit. "I was fed up with what I saw. I was off in the Philippines and I saw what happens when the war is over, they go back to their old habits of segregation. My roommate in the Philippines was Mark Rivers, a West Pointer, class of '45, and he told me about the silent treatment, being ignored, being abused. Nothing in the Army in 1946 gave me any indication that that would change."
But back home in Pennsylvania, second-class status was also the way. Then in 1948 Harry Truman ordered the armed forces desegregated, and Becton, his wife, Louise, a nurse, and the first of their five children went back and stayed.
Today, Lt. Gen. Becton, 55, is the highest ranking active black officer in the Army. Last night he spoke on hehalf of the more than 70 black generals and admirals at a banquet in their honor.
The dinner, held at the D.C. Armory, was shoulder-to-shoulder with gold braid and brass, listening to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. But rank was put aside when Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion, entered the room filled with nearly 3,000 guests. Maj. Gen. Hugh Robinson was one of many who said, "I've just got to shake his hand."
Time has healed any bad feelings that might have existed between Ali and last night's military representatives over his refusal on religious grounds to serve in the Army in 1967. "There's nothing bigger than this," said Ali. He said he didn't find it ironic that he was at this grand military display. "Nobody talks about it anymore because they understand I did it for Allah."
Lt. Gen. Becton recalled the furor around the Ali draft resistance. "We had a lot of people being shot at and I felt that anyone who refused to be drafted was not helping the country," he said. "But each person has to face himself and you have to be an awfully big person to do what he did."
Most of the evening's spotlight went to the generals and admirals, who were praised by Weinberger. "Thank you for your indispensable support . . . we need something to be proud of these days," he said. "Here it is before us tonight."
The road that brought the assembled admirals and generals to their ranks and status was long and hard.
"If we go back in modern times, just to World War II, we had just one black flag officer, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. the first black general since the Civil War . We had a segregated Army, few role models; we certainly didn't perceive the opportunity to do many things other than what other 'colored' troops did," said Becton, in a conversation before the dinner. He recently completed 32 months as commander of the Seventh Corps, the Army's largest corps, in Stuttgart.
"It represents the growth in the country, the opportunities that are there. It represents the fact that no longer can a person say, I have busted my back, I work very hard and I can't get anywhere. In the services if you are that professional, if you do your thing, and you do it well, you get recognized."
Becton, a tall, trim man, with a crew cut-styled Afro, is the military professional. Dressed in his Army greens he looks no different from the flocks of other three-stars dashing through the miles of anonymous Pentagon offices, except that he wears the black and blue patch of the all-black World War II 93rd Infantry on his sleeve. Laughing, he moves away from a statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, wary that people might think he smokes a pipe in imitation of the famous general.
Being set apart doesn't appeal to Becton. "I seriously did not consider when I accepted . . . the Seventh Corps that a black was taking command. I felt I took it in light of the fact that someone thought I was qualified to do the job. When you put the race up in front of you--'I am doing it for my race'--then I think it's wrong. You are supposed to do it for all the things we are supposed to be standing for. I think I am a soldier and I try to think like one. I use the fact that I am black to try to understand more people."
In black American life, the military officer is a complex entity. For decades, the armed services offered different careers, security, adventure and, maybe most importantly, respect through its built-in recognition of authority. And even when the soldier had to battle the imperfect world of lowly assignments and racial slurs, he could go home to his community, swagger down the street in his pressed khakis and polished shoes and be somebody.
To achieve that, the officers often had to sacrifice part of their black identity. "A Soldier's Play," the current production of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, focuses on a sergeant who knows that the whites don't respect him, but plays up to their standards, and rides herd on the blacks underneath him, ridiculing them but needing them for companionship. What this opportunity has bred, in many cases, is a classic company man--conservative, oriented to tasks and the work ethic, wedded to slow change. Yet, this person still is a unique force since the numbers of black officers still outnumber comparable jobs in Fortune 500 companies.
When the generals and admirals pulled up to the District Building yesterday morning, passers-by stared at the two lines of limousines and the phalanx of blacks in stars and medal-decorated uniforms. At a ceremony declaring the day, "Black Flag Officers Day," City Council chairman Arrington Dixon recalled his experiences at the Air Force Academy, and Mayor Marion Barry observed, "History is being made here today. A few years ago we could have this meeting in a phone booth."
In the audience, Maj. Gen. Rufus Billups, who retired from the Air Force after 30 years, said he hoped the day's salute would have a broad impact. "This is something not only for us but to present ourselves to young black people and say, you don't have to get lost in drugs or get disappointed by your status in life. There is a way."
Racism, Becton explained in a dispassionate way in an earlier interview, has been a double-edged sword in his own career. "I have been victimized by racism but have benefited also." On some of his records the evaluation reads, "This is the finest colored officer I know," he acknowledged dryly. "But there have been times in the last 20-25 years when being black has helped to get certain assignments. If they wanted to get what some would call a token black, or someone would say we have to have an opportunity for one to do whatever, you sort of resent it. But if they are looking for a 'colored' officer, it puts you up on a platform to get someplace."
By 1978 Becton had earned the third star of a lieutenant general, six years after he first reached that golden rank level. Since July he has been deputy commanding general for training and Army inspector general of training at Ft. Monroe in Norfolk. That's not his ideal assignment, but that's the Army.
The periodic criticism of the young enlisted soldiers, particularly blacks and women, has him broiling. The charge, Becton said, of "too black, too dumb . . . p----- me off . . . The criticism is misplaced. If you want to criticize something, criticize the educational system that provided us the persons who can't read or write, criticize the school system that did not expose our youngsters to everything that it should have. I am not saying that we have done everything we should in the Army, I think we are trying to do better."