After 246 years, the Marines give black officers 4 stars

WASHINGTON — In the military, numerous promotion ceremonies have been held this year, at Army bases, aircraft carriers and even on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.

But Saturday has a history book. General Michael E. Langley, 60, became the first Black Marine to receive a fourth star on his shoulder—a milestone achievement in the Corps’ 246-year history. With that star, he became one of only three four-star generals in the Marine Corps — the senior leader of the Marine Corps.

In a rousing ceremony at Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, General Langley acknowledged that his promotion was significant and that his next assignment will be to lead U.S. Africa Command. Before Saturday, the Marines had never given anyone who wasn’t white four stars.

Referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order to desegregate the Marines during World War II, General Langley listed a group of black Marines who preceded him. They included Frank E. Peterson Jr., the first black man to become a general in the Marine Corps, and Ronald L. Bailey, the first black man to command the 1st Marine Division. Both rank among the top lieutenants.

The promotion of General Langley has excited the Black Marines. When he showed up at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia on Thursday, many of them ambushed him in order to bring the new uniform to Stuttgart, Germany, where Africa Command is located.

“Wait, wait, sir,” General Langley recalled a veritable black major in an interview. “I just wanted to shake hands with you.”

Soon more Marines — black and white, men and women — demanded a photo with the new four-star general.

At Saturday’s ceremony, five officers lined up to watch the ceremony. They were part of the Quantico Expeditionary Warfare Training Class, which was visited Wednesday by Marine Corps commander General David H. Berger. About 45 minutes after General Berger addressed the class, Captain Rousseau St. Tilfort, 34, raised his hand. “How can I be there on Saturday?” he asked.

“It didn’t catch my attention at first because everyone was asking questions about the amphibious stuff and tactics, and he asked me about Saturday,” General Berger said with a smile at the ceremony.

Captain Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who came out of Quantico with Captain San Tilfort, said in an interview, “All these friends started texting me, saying, ‘You’re going to be next. One.'”

“I don’t know if I’m going to stick around that long,” he said, “but the fact that junior Marines can see this, they’ll see that no matter what background you’re from, you can be in the Marines, As long as you act.”

For the Marines, General Langley’s promotion is a long-lost step. Since the Corps began enrolling African-American troops in 1942, fewer than 30 men have earned the rank of general of any kind. No one achieved the highest four-star rating, an honor awarded to 73 white men by the Marine Corps.

Seven African-Americans achieved Lieutenant General, or three stars. The rest received a star or two, mostly from areas where the Marines did not choose their senior leadership, such as logistics, aviation and transportation.

General Langley oversaw the Marine Corps on the East Coast during his last tenure, commanding all levels from platoon to regiment during his 37-year career. He has served overseas in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa, and he has held several senior staff positions at the Pentagon and the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.

Following a 2020 New York Times article on the lack of black admirals, General Berger was asked why the Marine Corps has not elevated an African-American to the highest rank in its entire history. “The reality is: everyone is very, very, very good,” he said in an interview with Defense One. “For every 10 we pick, for every 12, we can pick 30 more — every bit as good.”

General Langley’s promotion was especially poignant because his uncle was a member of the Cape Montford Marine Corps, the first black recruit to join the Marine Corps after he began admitting African-Americans in 1942. They trained at Cape Montford, North Carolina, separate from Camp LeJune, which trained white recruits.

Roosevelt’s executive order forced then-Marine Corps commander Thomas Holcomb to open service to blacks. “If it were a question of 5,000 whites or 250,000 black Marines,” the Marine Corps commander once said, “I’d rather have whites.”

Now, one of the Corps’ three senior leaders says that has changed.

“In spirit, we’ve learned that the value of the collective is more than just a single view of what the Marine Corps is made of,” General Langley said. He said he hoped Black Marines would see the Corps as a corps without a glass ceiling obstructed place.

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