Cohen Honors Desegregation Order at ROTC
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
NORFOLK, Va., May. 18, 1998 Defense Secretary William Cohen highlighted racial desegregation in the military at the ROTC commissioning ceremony May 16 at Norfolk State University.
Fifty years ago, President Harry Truman issued an executive order banning racial segregation in the armed forces. Also in 1948, the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College established an ROTC program. That program continues to flourish today at this small, predominantly black university.
With 29 cadets receiving their new gold bars, the secretary said the school symbolizes the ideals Truman put forth in his executive order, as well as the quality of graduates the military seeks.
"There is no more fitting place to mark this historic anniversary than Norfolk," Cohen told the cadets, faculty, family members and friends assembled in the university auditorium.
On the stage with Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart, were prominent African Americans from DoD's past and present, including Charity Adams-Early. In the closing days of World War II, then-Maj. Adams was the highest ranking African-American woman in England, where she commanded the all African-American female Army postal battalion.
"Few American women did so much to help our troops win that war," Cohen said of Adams' efforts to get morale-boosting mail to troops on the front lines of Europe.
Cohen recognized black heroes and trailblazers sharing the stage, including World War II aviators Howard Baugh, Lee Archer and Charles Bussey of the Tuskegee Airmen. Norman McDaniel, a former Vietnam POW and retired Air Force colonel, also attended.
Absent but honored by the secretary was retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. A Tuskegee Airman pioneer, Davis was key in the effort to "prove that black and white Americans could not only serve together -- indeed, that white soldiers would serve under a black superior -- but that they could succeed together," Cohen said.
Then Cohen announced to a standing ovation that he would soon nominate Davis for honorary promotion to four-star rank. "Few deserve this honor more or have waited longer for it than Gen. Davis," he said.
Among the audience were black military leaders -- and heroes. "We have in one room a stunning array of talent that spans the tapestry of time," Cohen said. Among those present, said the secretary, "are ground breakers whose remarkable stories ... I want to share with you today; current military leaders who are confronting the security challenges of our time; and future officers, illuminated by all the potential and possibilities of tomorrow."
The secretary pointed out the achievements of Adm. Paul Reason, the first African American in naval history to achieve four-star rank. Sitting with the commander in chief of Atlantic Command were the other two African-American active duty four-stars: Gen. Johnnie Wilson, commander of the Army Materiel Command; and Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton, commander of the Air Training and Education Command.
"These leaders and these graduates prove that service of African Americans in our active, Guard and reserve forces is not a modern nicety -- it is a moral imperative and a military necessity," Cohen said. "In today's military, we cannot afford to waste the talents of a single individual."
But the battle for equal opportunities for all races in the military isn't over, the secretary said. "African-American officers remain few in number and ... are more heavily represented in other areas such as support, service and supply," he said. "We must make full equality of opportunity not only a principle but our standard practice."
About the cadets whose commissions were honored, Cohen called for an investment in their futures. "We must ensure that discrimination never closes any door at any rank, in any sector or at any stage in their careers," he said.
Finally, he called for a triumph of "harmony over hate. Indeed, hate groups within our ranks -- no matter how few or far between -- have the power to destroy lives and devastate communities. Those who seek to make others unwelcome because of their racial or ethnic background must know that it is they who are unwelcome in America's military."