By Timothy Aguirre, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
Described as a microcosm of our nation, today’s fleet leverages a palette of many colors. At sea, we wear blue camouflage and jerseys with each color of the rainbow to distinguish craft and responsibilities on flight decks. We paint our ships “Haze Gray” while underway. Even the pipes and service systems aboard ships are color-coded to discern function.
If Sailors today need not worry about the color of their skin as they defend our nation, then how did the fleet get through that part of its troubled past?
Yet for all the clever use of color in the fleet, Sailors today may not realize the color of their skin was ever a factor that could be used to characterize, much less divide, their shipmates serving in our Navy.
I spoke to Jeffrey R. Clark Sr., the acting Inspector General for Naval District Washington, about his experience during the 31 years he served in the Navy. Asked about why he joined, the five-tour retired Command Master Chief recalled his uncle, Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Robert Clark. “When my uncle served [in the 1960s] . . . they still were somewhat segregated.”
“I remember him telling me . . . about a trip to New Orleans, I think. My uncle was on a beach and somebody told the commanding officer that he [his uncle] couldn’t be on the beach. So the CO said, ‘well if he can’t be on the beach, we’re all leaving.’” said Clark. “I wish I could remember my uncle’s CO’s name. But I applaud him . . . For him to take that point . . . that was awesome, and I thought, that’s the branch of service I want to go in.”
Listening to Clark, I wondered if the roots of that divide found it hard to survive under the many layers of haze gray painted since. If Sailors today need not worry about the color of their skin as they defend our nation, then how did the fleet get through that part of its troubled past?
Maybe the divide washed away in the salt after decades of war at sea.
As I remembered the words of one Navy legend, I thought the answer was perhaps a culture of kinship, instilled by bold leaders; a culture that would dispel baseless prejudice and make people from all corners of a nation come together. “Ours must be a Navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color or religion,” noted Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt in one of his famous policy directives to the fleet, Z-Gram #66 on Dec. 17, 1970.
Yet, the admiral’s message was a necessary reaction to the tensions of our nation at the time. Clark said his uncle would tell him about the race riots on ships, but his uncle never experienced such. And we spoke about another trailblazing Sailor; then-young J. Paul Reason, a junior officer aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). When racial tensions stirred restlessness amongst his crew, Reason stepped in. Worried that similar riots would transpire on Big E as they did aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and USS Constellation (CV-64), a group of enlisted Sailors gathered at the mess decks. Reason addressed the group and listened to their complaints. He was chided and called “Uncle Tom” by the young Sailors, who did not know of the hardships he had dealt with up to that point. Big ‘E’ completed its Vietnam deployment without a riot or major incident, thanks in part to Reason’s leadership. For the next twenty-four years, Reason continued to prove himself through sound judgment and leadership, finally becoming the United States Navy’s first Black four-star admiral in 1996.
Personally, “one team, one fight,” is a motto that still drives me, even after having left the Navy’s active service.
But now we look at the national atmosphere as it’s portrayed across the media. We see the tension has led many to discover this systemic issue continues to plague our nation. In contrast with the Navy, the issue has not been successfully addressed by our American way of life, much less by our laws or common societal contracts.
Clark agreed that there is a problem in our country and explained that “if you go on Facebook when something happens… You see all these comments and you’d say, ‘What? I can’t believe that. I mean what?’ So for me, being isolated in the military for 31 years . . . I guess I was blind. Now I’m more into the social media . . . and I’m like, ‘Man, this is . . . Society is still . . .” and he shakes his head in disappointment.
Speaking with Clark helped me realize that we should be thankful for the leaders in our Navy who were dedicated to eradicating the plague of prejudice from our fleet. Yet, today’s Sailors must be cognizant. We cannot let down. To maintain a unified force, which relies on a nation that still suffers, we must count on the leadership of Sailors like him.
“When I look at the Navy . . . it was the best thing I ever did in my life,” said Clark. “It taught me how to reach back and assure the people who we were entrusted to lead and take care of, that they were the first thing in my mind.”
Having experienced this powerful culture of unity during my time in the Navy, and inspired by leaders like Reason and Clark, I don’t think twice about speaking up or intervening when I see divisive rhetoric in our society. For the veterans out there, has your time in service influenced how you see and interact with our society? For our friends and family, do you remember any of our many brave Sailors who served through the tough times and got us to where we are today?