An aircraft carrier is named for a segregationist senator; some want to rename it
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: July 1, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — As a Mississippi senator, John C. Stennis signed the infamous “Southern Manifesto” decrying integration. He fought Black equality in the Navy and, as a prosecutor, sought execution for three Black men who’d been tortured into confessing.
For several decades, his name has graced an aircraft carrier currently based in Norfolk — the only senator to have that honor.
Now, amid a national reckoning over America’s racist roots, some are pushing for that to change.
“Today’s sailors, Marines, and officers should not have to make the psychologically damaging choice of speaking up or serving in silence in a vessel named for an ardent segregationist and white supremacist, who condoned beating the skin off black people until they either confessed or died,” retired Lt. Cmdr. Reuben Keith Green wrote in a recent piece for the U.S. Naval Institute. “It is incompatible with American values and the recent directives from the Navy to expect for them to have to do so.”
In the piece, titled “The Case for Renaming the USS John C. Stennis,” Green outlines the former Democratic senator’s history as a white supremacist and urges the Navy to rename the ship. He suggested former sailor William S. Norman, a minority affairs assistant to the naval operations chief in the early 1970s who pushed for improvements to racial equality, as one possible replacement. Norman grew up in Norfolk and attended Booker T. Washington High School.
A similar effort launched last week aims to get Stennis’ name off of a NASA space center in Mississippi.
Last month, Pentagon officials said they would look into changing the monikers of military installations named for Confederate leaders — including North Carolina’s Fort Bragg — though President Donald Trump has said he won’t allow that to happen. A Navy spokesman declined to comment about the Stennis this week.
Michael Clemons, a political science and African American studies professor at Old Dominion University, said he thinks renaming the ship “makes a whole lot of sense.”
“The Navy is too diverse at this point in time, too inclusionary to be honoring certain individuals,” said Clemons, who’s also the founding editor of The Journal of Race and Policy. “To keep his name on an aircraft carrier of that magnitude, I think it potentially undermines the safety and cohesiveness of those men and women who put their life on the line for this country.”
Stennis was born in Mississippi in 1901, to a farmer “in one of the poorest counties in the poorest state,” according to the carrier’s website. He went to law school at the University of Virginia.
Stennis served as a prosecutor, circuit court judge and state senator in his home state before representing it in the U.S. Senate for 41 years.
While a prosecutor, he sought conviction and the death penalty for three black men accused of murder, despite “knowledge that the confessions had been obtained through torture,” Clemons said.
The case bolstered his reputation, but the convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1936 in Brown v. Mississippi. The justices ruled such confessions extracted by police violence cannot be used and violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Congress, Stennis was part of a coalition of southern Democrats known as “Dixiecrats” who vehemently opposed civil rights and desegregation.
“Stennis was the heart, soul, and brains of the white supremacist caucus in the 1948 Congress,” Green wrote.
He signed the “Southern Manifesto” opposing school integration and voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
He ordered congressional subcommittee hearings on “permissiveness” in the Navy, according to Green. He wanted to thwart cultural changes being attempted by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.
“Blacks had come down from the trees a lot later than we did,” Stennis told Zumwalt, according to the the admiral’s memoir.
As the chair of the committees on Armed Services and Appropriations, Stennis wielded immense power and was “good at bringing home the bacon” to Mississippi, Clemons said.
Stennis, who has been called “the father of America’s modern Navy,” served in the Senate through 1989, dying six years later. The ship was commissioned in 1995, shortly before his death.
“I often have thought about what it must be like for a minority sailor to receive orders to and serve” on the Stennis, Green wrote. “Most sailors — and Navy leaders — have little idea of his background, but the Navy, as an institution, has a moral obligation to know.”
Clemons said symbols are “very powerful,” and an aircraft carrier’s name is one.
“They’re often motivational to people. In this instance the kind of inspiration I would not expect to be all that positive.”
It was President Ronald Reagan who announced Stennis as the namesake for an aircraft carrier, telling him, according to the ship’s website, “when I consider your career, there is a certain comparison that comes to mind. In troubled places, you’ve brought calm resolve, like one of the great fighting ships you’ve done so much to obtain for the Navy; serene, self-possessed but like a great ship of the line, possessed of a high sense of purpose.”
In January, at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony, the Navy announced that its newest aircraft carrier would be named after Doris Miller, who manned anti-aircraft guns during the Pearl Harbor attack and was the first black American awarded the Navy Cross. He died two years later aboard the USS Liscome Bay when it sunk in the South Pacific.