During and since the 1970’s, the military has clearly outpaced most other American institutions in granting African-Americans access to leadership positions. In 1971 Samuel Gravely became the first black rear admiral in the United States Navy. In 1975 Daniel “Chappie” James became the first black four star general in the Air Force. In 1977 Clifford Alexander, appointed Secretary of the Army by President Jimmy Carter, became the first African-American to head a branch of the military. (Lanning 278)
But by far the best known African-American military leader is Colin Powell. Born in New York City to Jamaican immigrants, Powell was an ROTC student at CCNY in the 1950’s. (Astor 414) He became one of the first American advisers in Vietnam in 1962. (Astor 424) After two tours in Vietnam, Powell received a masters degree from George Washington University to help prepare him for an upper-level career in the military. (Astor 486) Like Benjamin Davis, Sr., and Benjamin Davis, Jr., Powell observed racial friction in the military and was often called upon to help resolve it.
In 1978 then Colonel Colin Powell was promoted to Brigadier General. He later became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bush. After successfully leading the American military during the Gulf War, Colin Powell - like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower- became one of the most admired men in America. He is currently Secretary of State, the highest post in the government of the United States ever held by an African-American. Most observers believe he would strengthen a national ticket for either the Republicans or the Democrats.
There is some dispute about whether or not affirmative action played any role in Colin Powell’s promotion to Brigadier General. Colin Powell has said that it did and so does former President Bill Clinton. The original promotion list handed Secretary Alexander in 1978 did not contain the names of any Black colonels. Alexander asked the General Officer Board to make sure no ratings had been influenced by prejudice or discrimination. When the list was resubmitted, Powell’s name and those of other black colonels were included. Alexander denies that this constituted affirmative action, but historian Gerald Astor sees Powell’s promotion as affirmative action in its best form. Alexander did not insist on promoting any black colonels; he simply wanted an inclusive search. This is what affirmative action was meant to accomplish. No stone should be left unturned, no one excluded from consideration if America is to live up to its ideals.
It would be a mistake to see the successes of Colin Powell and other African-American military leaders as proof that racism has disappeared from the military. But it is equally clear that the military has made significant progress toward the goal of racial equality.
Questions for Discussion:
How have other American institutions fared in granting African-Americans access to leadership positions?
Why does Colin Powell have so much respect among Americans?
African-Americans and the Military: The Case of Henry Flipper
The case of Henry Flipper, the first African-American to receive a commission from the U.S. Military Academy, illustrates some of the barriers faced by the African-American military pioneers. Flipper was born in Georgia in 1856. His parents, both slaves, were allowed to wed by their masters. (Astor 48). Flipper attended Atlanta University and upon graduation was nominated for the Military Academy by his congressman. He was the fifth African-American to attend the academy. Like his predecessors, he faced racism from the day he arrived. Flipper described the treatment he received in
A Colored Cadet at West Point
The impression made upon me by what I saw while going from the adjutant’s office to the barracks was certainly not very encouraging. The rear windows were crowded with cadets watching…with apparently as much astonishment and interest as they would, perhaps, have watched Hannibal cross the Alps. Their words, jeers, etc., were most insulting. (quoted in Astor 48)
Flipper roomed with James Smith, the only other Black cadet at the Academy at that time. But Smith left before graduation. Flipper received applause upon receiving his certificate and wrote, “Even the cadets and other persons connected with the academy congratulated me. Oh how happy I was. I prized the good words of the cadets above all others. They did not hesitate to speak to me or shake hands with me before each other or anyone else. All signs of ostracism were gone.” (quoted in Astor 49)
After graduation, Flipper was sent to Kansas to help remove Native Americans from their tribal homelands. Like the other African-American military men on this mission, Flipper was referred to by the Native Americans as a “Buffalo soldier.” He was accepted by the white soldiers and officers in Kansas, but later was transferred to Fort Davis in Texas. Here his fellow officers ostracized him, although he did “find some solace in the company of Miss Nell Dryer with whom he enjoyed horseback rides.” (Astor 51) This irritated Lt. Charles Nordstrom, a former suitor of Miss Dryer, who was not only lovely, but white. When Major N.B. McLaughlin, described by Flipper as a fine officer and a gentleman, was replaced by Col. William Shafter, Flipper’s troubles began.
Flipper was in charge of the commissary and its funds. A discrepancy occurred and Flipper was charged with embezzlement. A court martial eventually cleared Flipper of the embezzlement charge, but he was found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” (Astor 52) Flipper left the military and for a while could find work only as a clerk for a steam laundry. But he later became an engineer, a surveyor, and an expert on land grants.
Nearly one hundred years after his graduation, a campaign led by a Georgia schoolteacher convinced the Department of the Army to award Henry Flipper an honorable discharge. (Astor 53)
Questions for Discussion:
What types of pressures are faced by those who are among “the first” of their race, gender, or ethnic group to be given an opportunity previously denied?
What lessons can we learn from the case of Henry Flipper?