Black, and Navy Too: How Vietnam Era African-American Sailors Asserted Manhood through Black Power Militancy.
Abstract: In the early 1970s, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Chief of Naval Operations, launched a recruitment program targeted at black men, so that the Navy could attain sufficient manpower to meet the needs of its increasing role in the Vietnam War. Rather than experiencing manly fulfillment through rank and status, black sailors felt emasculated by the discriminatory treatment they received. This essay explores how African-American sailors asserted their manhood through racial militancy and violent protest.

Key Words: African-American sailors, manhood, black power militancy, Vietnam, institutional racism, homosocial relations, masculine identity
Subject: African American sailors (History)
Black power (History)
African American men (Psychological aspects)
Pub Date: 01/01/2001
Publication: Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265
Issue: Date: Wntr, 2001 Source Volume: 9 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Name: Vietnam War, 1959-1975
Organization: Government Agency: United States. Navy
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 72684383
Full Text: 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. The Navy also launched an advertising campaign that was designed to convince young blacks that they would be welcome in an institution that had been so closely associated with southern white Protestant males. One ad, suggesting the Navy would provide a hospitable environment to urban blacks, asserted that a black man could easily make the transition "From the Street to the Fleet." Another assured these young men who were proud of their racial heritage that, yes, "You Can Be Black, and Navy Too." The Navy further promised these young blacks the opportunity to learn a trade that would lead to good jobs in the private sector. Under the new recruiting policies, the percentage of black sailors reached 12 percent in 1972--approximating the percentage of blacks in the general population (Cortright, 1975, pp. 119-120).

The reality of the Navy experience differed substantially from the rhetoric, however, despite Zumwalt's personal commitment to an inclusive Navy. In the wake of the Kitty Hawk and Constellation incidents, Navy officials acknowledged that there had been considerable obstacles to the implementation of Zumwalt's program for equal opportunity. Though no longer pigeonholed as stewards waiting on officers in dining rooms, African Americans nonetheless found themselves performing menial jobs. Low test scores on the AFQT, the military's classification test, and racial discrimination militated against black sailors' achieving their vocational goals. Lieutenant Commander William Norman, an African American and Zumwalt's chief race relations advisor, described how race shaped the Navy's two-tier occupational structure: "You could go aboard a carrier with 5,000 people, and you would find the overwhelming majority of the blacks in the lowest level in jobs, in the dirtiest jobs, down in the laundry room, down in the bowels of the ship," the senior officer explained. "You walk in the areas where I work with all the sophisticated computers, and it would look as if there were no blacks on the entire ship" (Terry, 1984, pp. 181-182). This striking image of a caste system, reminiscent of slave ships, likewise troubled young sailors of the Black Power Era.

The Navy brass cited the skills deficit, documented by the AFQT, as justification for the low status of black men. "It's a tough situation," stated the Constellation's Executive Officer, Commander John Schaub, "and I think that the system we have that encourages the recruiting of educationally deprived personnel and then places them in competition with others more fortunate is poorly conceived and totally unfair" (Holles, 1972). The skills gap, however, does not adequately explain why white supervisors denied promotions and leadership responsibilities to black crewmen who were not seeking jobs in technical specialties. Even low-ranking, low-skilled, "unrated" white sailors benefited from white privilege. Lonnie Brown, the Constellation dissident, again explains how the stigma of race relegated African Americans to the least desirable jobs: "Two men have to chip down a wall. The black man will be told to get up on the ladder and chip above his head. The white guy will chip from the waist down. When that happens constantly, you know what's happening" ("Keelhauling," 1972).

Zumwalt's reforms were often undermined by white commanders and mid-level supervisors who failed to implement them as intended ("Keelhauling," 1972). Many of these older whites resisted change because they had been socialized under the old system and they had prospered under it. In other words, they interpreted social gains for young sailors in general and African Americans in particular as a threat to their institutional power and status. David Cooper, a white sailor, recalled that the majority of petty officers he encountered were "out and out racists, and what you would characterize as your typical Redneck--they were George Wallace types. They would be Ku Klux Klan people, had they lived 30 or 40 years ago when the Klan was certainly more alive than it is today" (Cooper, 1974, p. 52). The old guard expressed hostility to the z-grams by asserting that these reforms fostered "permissiveness." The notion of permissiveness connoted both generational and racial animosity. In general, it meant Zumwalt's program was too sympathetic and conciliatory toward the demands of young enlisted personnel in ways that undermined tradition and patriarchal authority. When applied to African Americans by white officers and petty officers, "permissiveness" was a way of saying that there were too many blacks, especially unruly militant ones, in the Navy, a situation that threatened the racial hierarchy (Zumwalt, 1976).

The resistance of middle management was further hardened by external factors related to the Vietnam War that created status anxieties for these men. Since the nation had turned against the war, military men were put on the defensive. The public associated career military men with a dirty quagmire; average Americans no longer admired them as they had as recently as a decade earlier. Navy lifers also felt slighted by a Congress that essentially cut the Navy's budget by not increasing its funding to meet its expanding role in the Vietnam War, further intensifying their status anxieties (Hersh, 1972b; Middleton, 1972a). A smaller budget meant less state of-the-art military hardware and less comfortable working and living conditions. Feeling under siege by the public and the Congress, these white males did not want to yield any institutional power to young black sailors. Needless to say, a number of young white sailors were not eager to see their black peers gain greater opportunities since equality would undercut their racial privileges. In essence, racial conflict--between assertive young blacks, on the one hand, and their white peers and supervisors on the other--created the climate for the rebellion on the Kitty Hawk and elsewhere in the Navy.

In fact, racial violence and defiance of military authorities had increased significantly after the Tet Offensive, in the armed forces as a whole (Cortright, 1975). Frequently, occurring in social situations such as enlisted men's clubs and mess halls, interracial violence solidified homosocial ties between servicemen of the same race. Violence was also a form of protest for black GIs who were fed up with second-class treatment. These racial brawls often involved only a few GIs in shoving matches, but they occasionally erupted into full-scale race riots involving a few hundred combatants fighting for several hours. Because combat soldiers relied on one another for survival, U.S. ground forces rarely allowed racial hostilities to explode in the field; the rear military camps and domestic bases were the typical sites of interracial violence ("Black vs. White," 1969; Terry, 1984).

In 1969, racial violence erupted in the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey; at Fort Hood, Texas; and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Marine Corps experienced the same at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station in Hawaii and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina ("Black vs. White," 1969; Nalty, 1986). The race riot at Camp Lejeune that began over interracial dancing left one soldier dead. The racial brawl at Kaneohe Air Station suggests how Black Power gestures shaped black militancy and provoked racial confrontation. Newsweek described the fight at the Honolulu Marine installation in the following manner:

A nonviolent protest staged by Constellation sailors on a San Diego dock similarly indicates the anti-authoritarian meaning of the Black Power salute. Having brought the black dissidents ashore following their first sit-down strike aboard the aircraft carrier, Navy officials ordered them to return to the ship by 0800, November 9, 1972, or they would risk being charged with unauthorized absences. The sailors assembled along the pier and raised their clenched fists in the Black Power salute before television news crews, and most refused to report for duty. This image of black defiance so enraged President Nixon that he asked Admiral Zumwalt to summarily dismiss the protesters with dishonorable discharges (Zumwalt, 1976).(1)

Just as the Black Power salute signified racial militancy at the Kaneohe Air Station brawl, the dockside demonstration by Constellation sailors, and other protests, so too did black nationalist gestures inform the gender identities of African-American sailors who participated in the Kitty Hawk riot. I will explore below how African-American seamen used violence to protest their marginal position in the military hierarchy and to assert their masculinity.


Racial unrest was not the only problem that the Navy confronted in the early seventies. As the focus of American participation in the Vietnam War shifted from the Army and Marines to the Navy, G.I. dissidents and civilian activists redirected their anti-war campaign to give greater attention to the Navy (Cortright, 1975; Hersh, 1972a). These two pressures--greater responsibility for combat support and anti-war activities--added to the stress placed on sailors and exacerbated tensions between enlisted men and their officers. Shouldering a greater burden in the war meant that many sailors had to work 18- to 20-hour days ("Keelhauling," 1972). Opportunities for liberty became less frequent, and when sailors did receive a brief furlough from duty, most had to compete with other sailors for a place to relax. Since the Navy brass did not want ships to venture far from the war zone, Subic Bay, the Philippine port-of-call, became overcrowded with enlisted men ("Keelhauling," 1972).

A number of sailors coped with the pressures of the war through anti-war resistance and escapism. They flaunted traditional values and military authority by wearing hippie garb and smoking marijuana and heroin, and they wrote for and read underground newspapers such as the Kitty Litter, which provided news and critical commentary on events aboard the Kitty Hawk from the perspective of dissident sailors (Cortright, 1975; Disciplinary, 1972; Hersh, 1972a). Several committed acts of sabotage on the Ranger, Forrestal, Anderson, and Chilton in order to stop the war (Cortright, 1975; Hager, 1972; Hersh, 1972a; "Keelhauling," 1972; "The Navy's New," 1972). This political vandalism not only cost the government millions of dollars in replacing damaged equipment, but it heightened the anxieties of sailors on ships that were still operational. Because the Ranger and Forrestal were put out of commission, the Kitty Hawk had to remain in the war zone longer than planned (Cortright, 1975; Disciplinary, 1972,). This delay demoralized Kitty Hawk sailors since they had been looking forward to being reunited with their families. Under these conditions, sailors became frustrated with their leaders, and officers worried that nonconformist enlisted men might be saboteurs (Disciplinary, 1972; Hersh, 1972a; "Keelhauling," 1972).

Along with these general morale problems, African Americans had to grapple with feelings of alienation and emasculation. As in the Navy generally, blacks on the Kitty Hawk found themselves confined to menial work because of educational disadvantages and racial discrimination. African-American sailors were also frustrated by racial harassment--indignities young blacks faced in their daily encounters with white men that reinforced their marginal status in the military hierarchy: A supervisor allows white sailors to take a break from work, but orders the lone black who joins them to continue working. White sailors intimidate a black sailor who comes into their compartment while he is on watch duty. After the frightened black sailor returns with two brothers to discuss the matter, the white sailors persuade the master-at-arms to write a referral against the black watchman for threatening them.(2) A black sailor who, as permitted by regulations, wears his hair braided while inside his berthing compartment feels that his masculinity has been challenged by a white superior who belittles his hairstyle "[i]n front of a crowd of people." The sailor feels powerless to respond for fear that he will receive a reprimand (Disciplinary, 1972, pp. 1028-1029).

Race relations on the Kitty Hawk were strained, in part, because homosocial ties between black and white sailors were weak. Unlike infantrymen, their survival did not directly depend upon their ability to forge an interracial brotherhood. The Navy further undermined these tenuous homosocial ties by reducing the duration of basic training in the early 1970s. Needing more bodies to accommodate the Navy's larger role in the war, Defense Department officials were eager to advance new recruits through basic training quickly. The result of this change was that recruits did not have adequate time to thoroughly internalize their new identities as Navy men (Disciplinary, 1972). Enlisted men therefore lacked a strong alternative masculine identity that could foster mutual respect across the color line.

While race divided the Kitty Hawk's enlisted men, rank alienated the crew from the ship's skipper, Captain Townsend. Having enjoyed an informal relationship with Captain Oberg, Townsend's recent predecessor, some sailors found the new captain a disappointment. Comparing the two men, the Kitty Litter, the ship's underground newspaper, asserted that Captain Townsend "hides in his cabin or on the bridge and is never seen without his Marine lackey. Captain Oberg ... while a super-patriot and war hawk, was always available for anyone in the crew to talk to" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 529).

Ralph Scott, a petty officer, described Captain Townsend as a "cut and dried" military man who was strict about disciplinary matters unlike his two predecessors, who were "roll-with-the-tide-type attitudes, slap you on the back, `don't you do that no more, we will give you an administrative warning'" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 632). Commander Benjamin Cloud, a black officer who came to the Kitty Hawk shortly before the ship's riot, had heard that Oberg had a reputation for "informality and cordiality"; he was "one of the boys" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 551). By contrast, Captain Townsend seemed to be a throwback to an earlier, hard-line Navy.

Although Captain Oberg was more personable than his successor, African-American sailors questioned his sensitivity to racial issues, so they actually had hoped for a better relationship with the new captain. As racial conflicts continued after Townsend assumed command of the Kitty Hawk, he met with a group of "concerned blacks" to discuss their grievances. Their conversations led Townsend to create a smaller human relations staff that was more responsive to the needs of black sailors than the existing human relations council. Despite their desire for a better working relationship with Townsend, low-ranking black sailors soon came to believe that the new commanding officer was more distant and biased than the previous one (Disciplinary, 1972). Townsend's mishandling of two widely watched disciplinary cases later ruined any initial goodwill extended to him by black crewmen.

Many African-American enlisted personnel distrusted the military justice system. A study of military justice published several weeks after the Kitty Hawk incident documented a racial bias against African Americans, particularly when commanding officers had the power to exercise discretion in punishing servicemen for minor violations of the military code. In brief, the report found that penalties for blacks were more severe ("Military Justice," 1972).

In light of this mistrust, the Kitty Hawk's legal department had instituted measures to promote confidence in its administration of justice. Like other ships, the Kitty Hawk's legal office had a policy of posting the offenses committed by each sailor and the subsequent punishment in public view. Captain Oberg had also instituted a policy of allowing accused sailors to have their captain's mast, a nonjudicial hearing administered by the commanding officer, televised. Townsend, however, did not like televised masts because he believed that they infringed upon his prerogatives as commanding officer. "I am old-fashioned in the degree I feel a mast--since it is not judicial," he explained, "is a relationship as a father to a son" (Disciplinary, 1972, pp. 514-515). Suspicious of white paternalism and believing that a public hearing would discourage bias, most African Americans elected to have their captain's masts televised; the majority of white sailors chose a private hearing (Disciplinary, 1972). Black sailors were understandably disturbed by the proceedings they saw on television, although these broadcasts were not an accurate representation of the actual numbers of blacks and whites who were tried at captain's masts.

Already skeptical about the fairness of justice aboard the Kitty Hawk, many unrated African-American sailors lost confidence in Townsend after he punished two black sailors for an assault but gave a slap on the wrist to a white sailor charged with the same offense. The blacks were punished for beating a white sailor who had given them the finger. Both men had previous records. The captain confined one of the black offenders to the brig on a diet of bread and water (Disciplinary, 1972). In the second assault case, the white sailor was brought to captain's mast for hitting a black subordinate.

To black sailors, the two cases presented an ideal opportunity to assess the new captain on racial issues since both cases involved sailors of the same rank and an assault. Much to their dismay, the captain let the white sailor off with a warning. Townsend reasoned that the attack was not really the white sailor's fault because his division officer had acted improperly by placing an unrated sailor in a supervisory position. The captain did not feel comfortable punishing a man who had an otherwise clean record for mishandling a job that he should not have been given in the first place. Townsend further reasoned that the attack was "not assault in the strictest words" since it was "not deliberate, not a planned assault" and the white sailor had acted out of "frustration more than anger" (Disciplinary, 1972, pp. 520-521). This distinction, of course, was lost on black crewmen. African-American sailors, whose antisocial behavior was more likely to be documented and criminalized than that of their white peers, believed that each case should be judged on its own merits without taking past infractions into account.

The disparate punishments offended the brothers because it highlighted their powerlessness. Black and white sailors had frequent confrontations on shore and aboard ship, but race privilege gave white seamen a distinct advantage in that rivalry. The second case, notwithstanding Captain Townsend's rationalizations, suggested that white sailors could violate the black body with impunity. "That [decision] clearly marked him," Commander Cloud observed, "in the eyes of the young blacks aboard ship as being a racist" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 574). The Kitty Litter concurred: "Racism, it appears, is all right if the racist is in a position of power" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 531). Essentially, the whole judicial process seemed to be a tool for the subordination of black men.


Like servicemen in other branches of the military, black and white sailors usually spent their leisure hours apart. The black area of the Olongapo, the Subic Bay port city, was known as the "jungle." Segregated vice districts created an environment in which racial animosities and suspicions festered and spread like a contagion. Racial skirmishes on board the Hassayampa and the Kitty Hawk were preceded by racial brawls when black and white sailors crossed paths in the entertainment district (Zumwalt, 1976). "It's a war within a war," said Seaman Roger S. Gaston, describing the conflict between black and white sailors that was played out in Subic Bay's recreational areas (Lewis, 1967). On October 11, a fight broke out between black and white sailors from the Kitty Hawk at the San Paguita, an enlisted men's club, apparently after a drunken white sailor engaged a group of blacks in a shoving match ("Sailors Describe," 1972). Marines had to use tear gas to end the fighting between approximately 25 blacks and whites. They arrested five blacks and four whites (Townsend, 1972; Wilson, 1972).

In light of the tensions between black and white sailors, it is not surprising that rumors were rife among American troops. As folklorist Patricia Turner (1993) has pointed out, people express their anxieties about the other through rumor. Black sailors were on edge because they heard that white sailors had killed an African-American in Subic Bay ("Kitty Hawk Riot," 1972). These men continued to express their mistrust of their white rivals and the Navy establishment through rumors that circulated in the aftermath of the brawl at the enlisted men's club. One such rumor warned that white sailors had hired Philippine karate experts to rough up black sailors (Disciplinary, 1972). Through another rumor--that the Kitty Hawk had set sail to return to the war zone, leaving two black sailors behind in an Olongapo jail--these enlisted men questioned whether the Navy really considered black men as their own (Disciplinary, 1972). African-American sailors circulated these stories to express their feelings of alienation from the Navy as well as their mutual commitment to their own group.

When the men returned to the Kitty Hawk, only black sailors were called to the ship's investigative office for questioning. In the context of the unjust treatment that many black sailors had received in the military justice system, the failure of the legal officers to summon white participants indicated to African-American crewmen that once again they would be singled out for punishment. Troubled about the fairness of the system, 11 black sailors accompanied one of the brothers to the inquiry to demonstrate their solidarity (Zumwalt, 1976). In a defiant mood, the black sailor refused to make a statement.

After the blacks left the investigator's office, other brothers joined the original group in the mess deck area. The impromptu meeting grew to anywhere from 20 to 100 African-American sailors who, according to one participant, "were rapping and giving the [Black] [P]ower sign" (Cortright, 1975, pp. 120-121; "Local Black," 1972). The assemblage of blacks obstructed the movement of whites who wanted to get food, and the two groups exchanged insults and began shoving matches (Disciplinary, 1972). Seeing a large gathering of blacks, the master-at-arms became nervous and called in the Marines. The presence of the Marines inflamed the passions of black sailors because they viewed them as an instrument of white power. Commander Cloud explained their resentment:

The Marines attempted to disperse the blacks; but they remained defiant, and a group of blacks began dapping (exchanging a convoluted Black Power handshake) in passageways, again impeding traffic.(3) "The brothers just said that they weren't going unless the white boys were told to go," an African-American sailor recalled (Caldwell, 1972a). Determined to carry out their duties, the Marines beat the insurgent blacks--further enraging them.

Cloud, the highest ranking black officer on the aircraft carrier, played a critical mediating role that night, and he set aside military custom at several important moments during the melee in the hope that his overtures toward the disgruntled black sailors would avert further violence. The confrontation between blacks and whites on the night of October 12 to 13 exposed the contradictions in Cloud's identity as a black naval officer. Cloud's predicament highlighted the very challenge of being "black and Navy, too."

Cloud intervened by ordering the whites to leave the mess deck area, so that he could talk to the blacks in a less explosive environment. During their conversation with the executive officer, the young blacks, mostly 18- to 20-year-old men, vented their long-standing frustrations with racial discrimination on the carrier as well as their immediate grievances against the Marines. The precariousness of Cloud's position became evident during this meeting with the angry black crewmen. The crisis became a test of not just Cloud's management skills, but his blackness:

The brothers thought otherwise. A proud military man, Cloud became the target of personal attacks and profane language because of his association with the white establishment. Several "hotheads" accused him of being "a boy of the white man" who was no more likely to assist their search for equitable treatment than a white officer (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 573). The unruly dissidents questioned not only his independence from the white world, but whether he, as a black man, really had any influence within it. Cloud recalled that there were "serious doubts as to my credibility" and "whether or not I could effectively convey the[ir] wishes and desires [to] the command" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 575).

The executive officer and his men addressed other concerns. The black men were intensely angered by the behavior of a white corporal who they believed had reached for his pistol during their earlier skirmish. They also said that they feared that the Marines would try to retaliate against them. Cloud tried to mollify the sailors by assuring them that the Marine corporal would be punished if he were found to have acted improperly. Toward the end of the session, the captain entered the room, and he assured the blacks that they need not worry about any trouble from the Marines because "the marines worked for him just as everyone in the room did, and that he would be able to take care of that situation effectively" (Disciplinary, 1972, pp. 571-572). With those assurances, the men felt satisfied that they would be safe, and the meeting ended.

After a lull, the skirmishes resumed between groups of black sailors and their white adversaries. The fighting was so violent that some men required medical attention. By end of the riot the next day, about 40 whites and six to 10 blacks were injured. Commander Cloud again intervened in order to quell the fighting, and he encountered a group of angry black sailors on the ship's forecastle who readied themselves for combat by baring their chests and arming themselves with chains (Disciplinary, 1972).

In the midst of the confusion, rumors spread throughout the ship. Cloud received word that a group of blacks had murdered Captain Townsend. Acting on this information, Cloud went over the ship's public address system and ordered blacks and Marines to retreat to opposite areas of the ship. Just as Cloud finished his impassioned announcement, he saw the captain, who was not injured. Townsend, asserting that the situation was not grave, immediately reversed the order to retreat--which appeared, ironically, to confirm the dissidents' suggestion that Cloud was a token black. Even though he understood why Townsend countermanded his order, the Executive Officer worried that it compromised his authority since the crew knew that the captain disapproved of his handling of the situation.

Meanwhile about 100 blacks had gathered on the forecastle. Believing that the ship was on the verge of a blood bath, Cloud decided to employ "unorthodox" measures to pacify the belligerent crowd. He began his appeal for cooperation by invoking the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and contrasting their strategies for racial uplift. He implored the men to follow the nonviolent tactics of King in order to avoid casualties. He then addressed their earlier queries about his identity:

This narrative shows how Cloud, the naval officer, positioned himself as a "brother" in order to win the acceptance and obedience of the young crewmen. Though Cloud described himself as a man who was "completely military," he took off his shirt, a symbol of his superior rank as a naval officer. Shirtless like the young crowd, he became their equal. The executive officer further erased the lines between officers and enlisted men by explicitly asking for their approval. His demonstration of humility also challenged their homosocial values: If they truly believed that he was an Uncle Tom, then they could "beat [him] into submission"; otherwise, welcome him into the brotherhood--and accept his authority. Accentuating his incorporation into the brotherhood, Cloud exchanged the Black Power salute with the crew. The men affirmed Cloud's transformation with shouts of "he is a brother" and "we are with you all the way."

The Executive Officer's soul brother identity was short-lived, however. Having won the crowd's compliance, Cloud then repositioned himself as a naval officer. A small group of black sailors who had heard rumors that whites planned to attack their Executive Officer offered to escort him around the ship as his personal security detail. Reclaiming his military identity, Cloud told them that he feared neither black nor white sailors, and ordered the contingent "to go about their business and leave me alone" (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 585). Needless to say, Cloud was later criticized for being "too conciliatory" toward the black sailors, but he insisted that he only offered them a sympathetic ear.

In the early hours of October 13, Commander Cloud went to check on white sailors who were in their sleeping quarters in order to persuade them not to retaliate against their black counterparts. Some of the white sailors were furious because they had been attacked in their beds; others, because they felt that the blacks had been given special treatment that evening. The irate white sailors, not in a forgiving mood, directed their anger toward black servicemen at the black Executive Officer. The whites, as Cloud remembered,

Cloud responded to this particular challenge by asserting his power over them through his superior position in the military hierarchy. This encounter with white crewmen again highlighted the perils of leadership for black men in the U. S. Navy.


The Kitty Hawk incident and the courts-martial that followed exposed the particular challenges encountered by black men in the Navy. Unrated black sailors had to endure emasculating indignities in their work relationships with white superiors because of their race and rank. In their relationships with white peers, however, they had greater power to demand that they be treated as equals, as men. The Kitty Hawk riot resulted from that desire for equality and manhood. As an officer, Commander Benjamin Cloud possessed institutional power that the black dissidents lacked, but he nonetheless had to finesse his identity as a black man and a naval officer.

To safeguard their rights in the aftermath of the interracial clash, the 23 black sailors who were charged with participating in the riot requested civilian attorneys from the NAACP and ACLU. The riot drew widespread public attention and scrutiny, but inequities in Navy justice persisted (Caldwell, 1973b). Only one white sailor was court-martialed, even though the riot was partly a continuation of the fight that began at the Subic Bay night club and even though groups of whites had attacked African Americans on the aircraft carrier that fateful evening. Toward the end of the season of unrest, Admiral Zumwalt assembled the group of African-American officers who advised him on racial matters. In explaining the causes of the racial turmoil, the black officers echoed many of the sentiments of low-ranking sailors: White officers refused to implement z-grams, they demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to blacks' cultural heritage, and so forth. "The Navy has permitted the situation to exist where there is an incompatibility between being a member of a minority race and being a member of the Navy," the race advisors told the admiral. "The recruiting slogan, `You can be black and Navy, too,' is false advertising" (Wilson, 1972).

Admiral Zumwalt responded to the racial upheaval. He chastised flag officers for halfheartedly implementing his reforms and began the process of expelling "undesirable" sailors from the service (Holles, 1973; Middleton, 1972b; "Zumwalt Warns, 1972). The Navy further signaled its intention to discipline black dissidents by banning the dap, the popular handshake that had become a symbol of racial militancy (Caldwell, 1972b). In order to honor its commitment to diversity, the Navy renewed its efforts to recruit African-American men to the service. This new initiative was limited to high school graduates. "It appears that the Navy only wants those blacks that it can control," one recruiter mused (Caldwell, 1973c). While Navy officials had still hoped to find the perfect race relations seminar that would solve racial conflicts throughout the service, they decided to shelve a pilot program that became embroiled in controversy after a black male facilitator kissed a white woman colleague as a part of a training exercise ("Navy Suspending," 1973). Despite the implementation of other race relations programs and the new recruitment effort, racial tensions remained largely unabated (Caldwell, 1973a; Caldwell, 1973d; "Two Days," 1973).


(1.) Henry Kissinger made the actual request that Zumwalt refused to honor. Since the men had only been charged with six hours' absence, they could not legally be given dishonorable discharges under the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

(2.) A master-at-arms is similar to a policeman.

(3.) The dap is a ritual greeting that involves a series of handshakes, hand-slapping, and finger-snapping. African-American GIs used the dap to forge homosocial ties.


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Caldwell, E. (1972b, December 25). Quiet crackdown by Navy aimed at dissident blacks. New York Times, pp. 1,32.

Caldwell, E. (1973a, April 11). Carrier, city afloat, suffers city stress. New York Times, p. 24.

Caldwell, E. (1973b, April 1). Complaints persist that black sailors accused in carrier incidents did not receive equal justice. New York Times, p. 59.

Caldwell, E. (1973c, March 12). Navy determined to recruit blacks. New York Times, p. 16.

Caldwell, E. (1973d, May 28). Navy's racial trouble persists despite long effort to dispel it. New York Times, p. 5.

Cooper, D. [Transcript]. (1974). Oral History Collection. Columbia University.

Cortright, D. (1975). Soldiers in revolt: The American military today. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Double Day.

Disciplinary problems in the U.S. Navy: Hearings before the Special Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 92nd Cong., 2d Sess. (1972).

Hager, P. (1972, November 20). Two dozen acts of sabotage aboard Navy carrier reported. Los Angeles Times, p. 3.

Hersh, S. (1972a, November 6). Navy acts to halt racial violence and alleged sabotage on ships. New York Times, p. 14.

Hersh, S. (1972b, November 12). Some very unhappy ships. New York Times, sec. 4, p.4.

Holles, E. (1972, November 23). Black recruiting called Navy flaw. New York Times, p. 13.

Holles, E. (1973, February 2). Navy purging its ranks of "undesirables." New York Times, pp. 1,4.

Keelhauling the United States Navy. (1972, November 27). Time, 20-21.

Kitty Hawk riot. (1972, December 11). Newsweek, 30.

Leiferman, H. (1973, February 18). The Constellation incident. New York Times Magazine, 17, 21, 23, 26, 28, 32.

Lewis, J. W. (1967, April 16). US Negro at war. Philadelphia Inquirer.

Local black sailors among those arrested in U.S. Navy race riot. (1972, November 11). Philadelphia Tribune, p. 2.

Middleton, D. (1972a, November 22). Discipline crisis is feared in Navy. New York Times, pp. 1, 28.

Middleton, D. (1972b, November 11). Zumwalt rebukes top Navy leaders on racial unrest. New York Times, pp. 1, 16.

Military justice assailed. (1972, December 1) New York Times, pp. 1, 21.

Nalty, B. C. (1986). Strength for the fight: A history of black Americans in the military. New York: The Free Press.

Navy opens a recruiting drive to increase black enlistments. (1971, April 1). New York Times, p. 29.

The Navy's new racial crisis. (1972, November 20). Newsweek, 32-5.

Navy suspending a race program. (1973, December 9). New York Times, p. 21.

Ryan, P. B. (1976). USS Constellation flare-up: Was it mutiny? U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 102(1), 46-53.

Sailors describe racial battling. (1972, November 24). New York Times, p. 17.

Terry, W. (1984). Bloods: An oral history of the Vietnam War by black veterans. New York: Random House.

Townsend, P. (1972, November 14). Blacks demand probe of aircraft carrier. Philadelphia Tribune, p. 21.

Turner, P. (1993). Heard it through the grapevine: Rumor in African-American culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Two days of racial unrest on Navy carrier reported. (1973, July 22). New York Times, p. 30.

Wilson, G. (1972, November 5). Navy mobilizing for racial reforms. Washington Post, pp. 1, A6.

Zumwalt, E. (1976). On watch: A memoir. New York: Quadrangle/Times.

Zumwalt warns Navy discipline will not be eased as reforms are made. (1972, November 15). New York Times, p. 11.

I wish to express my gratitude to Nancy Watterson for providing insightful feedback on a draft of this essay. I dedicate this article to Dell Graham.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Herman Graham, III, Department of History, Denison University, Granville, OH 43023 or

Herman Graham, III, is an assistant professor at Denison University where he teaches courses on U.S. and African-American history. He received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is entitled "Brothers for a Year: How African-American GIs Became Men through Combat Friendships and Black Power during the Vietnam War." Graham is currently developing a new research project on manhood and the Civil Rights Movement. (
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)

At the lowering of the colors, some 50 blacks suddenly thrust their fists
   skyward in the militant black-power salute. With that an estimated 250
   leathernecks, white and black, went at each other with sticks, pipes and
   entrenching tools in a four-hour, base wide battle that left sixteen
   injured and sent three of them to the hospital. ("Black vs. White," 1969)

The Marines are looked upon much like the police establishment in any major
   metropolitan area. I mean, by the blacks. They are not looked upon with any
   respect at all. Any time they can be spat upon, rocks thrown, or what have
   you, while they are in the exercise of their duties, they will do so, and
   abuse will be accordingly directed to them. (Disciplinary, 1972, pp.

[O]ne of the problems I had that night was that I, in part, was being put
   to a test as to whether or not I was white in practice or black in
   practice. And the big point that I tried to get across to the young blacks
   was the fact that there need not be a compromise in terms of being an
   effective naval officer, and being black, that indeed the two are very
   compatible. (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 573)

And I indicated, I think, very dramatically, that if they doubted for
   one moment my sincerity as a black man who was sympathetic to their
   problems, but completely military and completely desirous of seeing that
   their situation be rectified within the legal framework of our society,
   that if they doubted for one moment that I did not understand ... their
   problem ... they could take a weapon and beat me on the spot and kill me on
   the spot.

      At that time I reached down and I took a weapon from one of the men that
   was there. It was piece of steel about ... 2 feet long, and held it up. I
   pulled off my shirt and I said, "The first man in this crowd that for one
   moment does not believe my sincerity, I hold this weapon and I bare my back
   for you to take this weapon and beat me into submission right here." And I
   challenged them to do that.

      By this time the crowd was quiet. They laid down their weapons to a man.
   Weapons went over the side of the ship. The chant went up that, "He is a
   brother," and I exchanged with them the black unity symbol, which I used
   for the first time in my life that evening, as earlier in the evening I had
   done. (Disciplinary, 1972, p. 584)

... weren't as noisy as the group of blacks, but they were certainly loud
   and boisterous, and initially disrespectful to me, saying of course that I
   was nothing more than a nigger, just like all the rest of them, and that,
   you know, why ... did I expect to be able to exercise any kind of authority
   in this situation. (Disciplinary, 1972, pp. 587-588)
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