Black military leaders express pride, not surprise, at progress

For Command Sgt. Maj. Marilyn Washington, the top soldier with the 1st Signal Brigade headquartered at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the inauguration has historic timing as well.


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 18, 2009

STUTTGART, Germany — Anthony Jackson recalls the encounter like it was yesterday.

It was the mid-1970s, and the Marine second lieutenant was on his first assignment, reporting for duty to a no-nonsense lieutenant colonel at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

“It was like reporting to God, if not Jesus,” said Jackson, who as a boy watched his older sister defy a bus driver’s orders to sit in the back of a bus in southern Texas.

But then, a few years out of college with a master’s degree in history, Jackson was standing at attention before a grizzly Marine lieutenant colonel.

“He leaves me there for it seemed like a very long time. Then he looks up at me and goes: ‘Lieutenant, if the white guys don’t get you for being black, then the black guys are gonna get you for being an Uncle Tom. You understand?’ ”

“Yes sir,” said Jackson, who was then summarily dismissed.

A matter of time

Since then, Jackson has risen to the rank of major general and now serves as U.S. Africa Command’s director of operations and logistics.

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office as America’s first black commander-in-chief, Jackson, as well as some younger black officers and senior noncommissioned officers, spoke of their struggles and successes on the road to becoming military leaders.

Reflecting on the progress that’s been made in the 60 years since President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military, Jackson said he never felt that race was an obstacle to overcome as he rose through the ranks.

“I was born at a time that I could defy somebody else’s (racial prejudices) and I could get away with it without ever hanging from a tree because somebody already set those conditions,” Jackson said, referring to all the civil rights leaders before him who blazed the trail.

“It was just a matter of time for Barack to come along,” Jackson said. “Regardless of politics … you can be excited for the fruition of an idea as we progress though history.”

To be sure, the military today is vastly different than the one Jackson’s father fought for in a segregated Army unit during World War II. Yet, particularly at the general officer level, blacks continue to be underrepresented.

Of the 38 four-star leaders in the military, just one is black: Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward became commander of the Stuttgart, Germany-based U.S. Africa Command in October 2007. In a statement Friday, Ward said he is appreciative of the opportunities available to him that were not available to his parents and others before him.

“While substantial progress has been made in addressing this, the job is not finished,” he wrote. “As our nation and its services continue giving priority to programs that recognize the value of diversity in overall mission accomplishment and effective organizations, sustained and focused attention will help complete this story.”

Across all branches of service, just 6.6 percent of leaders in the rank of O-7 — such as a brigadier general — or higher are black, according to Defense Department data. The representation within the senior enlisted ranks is much stronger. Roughly 27 percent of servicemembers at the E-9 rank — such as a sergeant major — are black.

Overall, 17 percent of military members are black.

Jackson maintains that the discrepancy in the officer ranks has less to do with race or discrimination inside the military than with the role the military has traditionally played in the life of young minorities. It’s long been a place to get started in life: enlist, get an education, take advantage of the GI Bill, he said.

“The opportunity is there. You’ve got to put your hand on that door handle and turn the knob and take advantage of your opportunities,” Jackson said.

Though they are underrepresented, some of the military’s younger leaders echo Jackson’s perspective about the opportunities for advancement.

“I think the Army and the military in general [have] done a very good job of finding the right people — officers or NCOs — for jobs. Regardless of color. There are still some people with old-school views, but they aren’t the norm,” said 1st Lt. Mark Searles, an infantry platoon leader serving in Iraq.

Searles attended the Virginia Military Institute, a school with roots going back to 1839. VMI produced many of the Confederate Army’s best officers during the Civil War, but Searles said he never felt out of place there.

“There is a southern tradition there, but I’d really have to say I wasn’t subjected to anything racial. There was an upperclassman who made some remarks when I was a freshman, but that was it. It would never happen with my peers,” said Searles, a Woodbridge, Va., native serving with the Baumholder, Germany-based 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment.

Indeed, Searles ended up graduating as first captain, making him the second black cadet in VMI history to hold the rank of regimental commander.

Others, such as 1st Lt. Nakesha Moultrie of the 225th Brigade Support Battalion, rose from the enlisted to the officer ranks. Being black was never a problem, she said.

“There is no ‘You have to look like this,’” said Moultrie, who is deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq. “It is up to you to climb that [career] ladder or not. It does not depend on your ethnic background.”

One senior leader said his ascent to the top enlisted rank was not tainted by any institutional racism. And, he said, his role has inspired some younger troops.

“I’ve heard it said in my travels that they (younger soldiers) have an appreciation for us in these positions, and it gives them that hopefulness,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Bartelle, senior noncommissioned officer at Allied Command Operations in Belgium.

Obama’s election, Bartelle said, is another sign of how the country has moved toward “that more perfect union we are striving for,” Bartelle said.

“We are trying to transcend race,” he said. “I think it’s a conversation that has to continue, even though this accomplishment has been made.”

For Command Sgt. Maj. Marilyn Washington, the inauguration has historic timing as well. Obama will take the oath one day after the country celebrates the federal holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“He wanted to see people being treated as equal, regardless of race and gender,” said Washington, the top soldier with the 1st Signal Brigade headquartered at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, South Korea. “This is the first step toward that dream.”

Those who went before

For Maj. Gen. Jackson, the election of Obama represents a culmination of the civil rights struggles he lived through.

He was 5 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala.

As a teenager, Jackson would do some resisting of his own, sitting at white-only lunch counters in Houston. In the late 1960s and early ’70s at San Jose State University, Calif., which he attended on a football scholarship, Jackson also was a player on the campus political scene. Among his peers were Tommie Smith and John Carlos – track and field athletes known worldwide for raising their black-gloved fists in protest on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

“My dad would say you’ll become so politically active, you’ll never get a commission in the military,” he said. “That didn’t faze me because there was a higher moral thing. To take part in civil rights.”

During Jackson’s freshman year of college, King was assassinated. It was the last time Jackson says he’s ever felt true rage that was racially fueled.

As Obama assumes the office of president, Jackson doesn’t mince words about what he believes the moment represents.

“The world is going to be collectively better off because he was elected. And that is without him doing anything yet,” he said.

“The politics are less important in this event, than the symbol for the world.”

As he thinks about his own achievement, Jackson is quick to credit all the leaders who went before him.

“When I look back, so many people have taken the whip, so many people have already marched, been put upon by dogs and taken an assassin’s bullet and died in the Army that it was quite easy for me relative to the experiences of others,” Jackson said.

Jackson left the Army in 1978 after fulfilling his first three-year commitment. But he later joined the Marines Reserve as a lieutenant, where black officers were rare.

“They hadn’t seen a black officer. They were stunned. And then there was the realization that I was an officer and they better whip out a salute. You could tell by that look in their eyes that it was a special thing,” said Jackson, who returned to active duty two years later — partly because of that special connection with young, black Marines.

“It was like they were saying, ‘I’m surprised to see you, but I’m so glad you’re here because your skin is the same color as mine.’ A word like that was never spoken. But it’s in the eyes,” said Jackson, his own eyes glassing over at the memory.

Stars and Stripes reporters Travis Tritten and Teri Weaver contributed to this report.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Bartelle visits with Pfc. Derraivius Strawder, who was wounded in Iraq, in July, 2008. Bartelle says Barack Obama's election is another sign of how the country has moved toward "that more perfect union we are striving for."

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