Black, and Navy Too: How Vietnam Era African-American Sailors Asserted Manhood through Black Power Militancy

Article excerpt

      Now if an officer comes along and he may not like me, you know, not
   because I said anything to him or done anything to him, but ... simply
   because I am who I am.

      The way I find this out is by the response he takes. He walks up to me
   and a white man and he speaks to the white man and not me. He will look at
   the white man and not me. He will address the white man with respect but
   when it's me it is, "Why don't you do this?"

      If the white guy and I have the same rate, pay classification, he will
   put the white guy in charge of me. That is if I am senior to him or not.
   (Lonnie Brown, a Constellation sailor; quoted in Disciplinary Problems,
   1972, p. 337)

      Mom, I refuse to be anything less than a man. Before I go to jail for
   six months I'd rather die. No Marines or whites were arrested, just Blacks.
   I'm serious Mom. I'll fight till my death and on my feet before I live on
   my knees the way some people have. Please do everything humanly possible to
   help me and my brothers. (Terry Advenger, a sailor, in a letter to his
   mother discussing Kitty Hawk riot; quoted in "Local Black Sailors," 1972,
   p. 2)

In October of 1972, racial unrest erupted into open conflict in the Navy. Angered by inequitable discipline on ship, menial work, and racial harassment, black sailors traded blows with Marine guards on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Other racial confrontations followed. A few days after the Kitty Hawk incident, a racial brawl occurred on the oiler Hassayampa (Zumwalt, 1976). Dissident black sailors protested racial discrimination by staging a sit-down strike on the Constellation in early November (Leiferman, 1973; Ryan, 1976). These protests came at a time when the Black Power Movement had transformed the racial consciousness of African Americans and American servicemen had grown resentful of the Vietnam War. The sentiments expressed by Navy dissidents Lonnie Brown and Terry Advenger in the above quotations indicate how young African-American males who internalized black nationalist values experienced manhood as black sailors. These low-ranking seamen insisted on asserting themselves as efficacious black men. Being a black man in this era meant refusing to accept the white man's world-view--celebrating black cultural aesthetics and critiquing white privilege. As men, black sailors not only felt that they were entitled to all of the privileges of their rank, but they expected white men to respect them as equals by extending the same social courtesies to them that they did to members of their own race. Manly honor was so important to their masculine identities that Advenger and others fought Marines and white sailors on the Kitty Hawk in order to defend it.

Sensing the restive mood of the America's youth, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Chief of Naval Operations, had previously issued a series of directives or "z-grams," designed to ensure equal opportunity for blacks and to eliminate paternalistic restrictions directed at all enlisted personnel in the Navy (Zumwalt, 1976). The z-grams that dealt with black issues ranged from the symbolic to the substantive--from requiring military posts to carry black consumer products to minority recruitment initiatives. Zumwalt set a goal of increasing black representation in the Navy to match the proportion of blacks in the general population ("Navy Opens," 1971). In 1971, African Americans were seriously underrepresented by that measure. There were 13,200 black enlisted personnel out of a total of 567,000 sailors, and black officers numbered 540 out of a total of 77,600 officers ("Navy Opens," 1971). Black sailors, in other words, constituted about 5.5% of all enlisted personnel in the Navy, while black officers constituted a paltry 0.67% of the total number of all naval officers.

To attract African Americans, the Navy trained recruiting specialists to court African Americans and established ROTC programs at Georgia's Savannah State and Louisiana's Southern University. …