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After 246 Years, the U.S. Marine Corps Has its First Black Four-Star General

The United States Marine Corps has made history by decorating a Black officer as a four-star general. While 73 white men have been honored with the same ranking, this soldier will be the first Black person to wear the celestial buttons.

On Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C., Gen. Michael E. Langley became the first Black Marine to achieve the landmark ranking in the corps’ 246-year history. This promotion makes him one of only three four-star generals to currently serve in the senior leadership capacity, The New York Times reports.

President Joe Biden nominated Gen. Langley in June and, thanks to his exemplary career, the process of promoting him took only one month. Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger was the official who actually promoted Langley, according to a press release from the Marines.

The process didn’t take long because the officer is known to get things done.

One person that bore witness was Retired Gen. Robert Neller, the former Marine commandant from 2015 to 2019, who had him on his radar for years. Neller said, “He gets stuff done, and people tend to like working for him.”

The Philadelphia Tribune reports that during his confirmation hearing in July, he thanked his father, Willie C. Langley, his stepmother and two sisters. His father was also a military man, serving 25 years in the U.S. Air Force.

“My daddy told me to aim high, so I aimed as high as I could and found the few and the proud,” Gen. Langley said, taking a joke at the fun fraternal-like rivalry between the branches.

“As many nominees have said in testimony before me, military families form the bedrock upon which our Joint Force readiness stands,” he remarked. “Without their support, I would not be here today.”

He is now being given the assignment to lead over 6,000 troops as the head of U.S. Africa Command at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

His agenda is to support America’s African partners through the challenges of climate change, population growth, and political instability.

During this confirmation hearing, he told senators that “military power alone will not help America’s relationship with the largest continent on the earth but a hybrid approach that is invested in the culture of Africa, not just military alliances.

“They require an integration of diplomatic efforts from the Department of State, development endeavors from USAID, and comprehensive strategies from other allies and partners operating in Africa,” he said about the African nations with which he will be working.

Gen. Langley noted that his current position was a result of the blood, sweat and tears of others that came before him, and on whose shoulders he stands. He mentioned Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first Black man to become a Marine Corps general, and Ronald L. Bailey, the first Black man to command the First Marine Division. Neither of those men rose higher than the rank of lieutenant general.

Berger paid homage to Petersen, saying, “43 years we go from our first African American general to now our first – I think leading to many more – four-star African American generals.”

The general also stands on the shoulders of his great-uncle, who was one of the first Blacks recruited to join the branch, a troop called Montford Point Marines. The would-be soldiers trained at Montford Point in North Carolina and were segregated from the white recruits who trained at another site called Camp Lejeune.

And just as he was inspired by his uncle, Petersen, and Bailey, he is inspiring others. 

In an interview regarding the promotion, news that leaked before the actual balloons and whistles, he said one Black major approached him saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, sir. I just want to shake your hand.”

The excitement around the promotion is rooted in the painful past of American slavery and Jim Crow, two institutions that prevented Black troops from being admitted to the Marine Corps until 1942.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to force the Marines to open their doors to Blacks. Thomas Holcomb, the commandant of the corps at the time, was clear, saying, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes. I would rather have the whites.” 

Gen. Langley says things have changed in the years after Holcomb’s bigoted statements. 

“Mentally we have learned that there’s greater value in the collective than just the monolithic perception of what the makeup of the Marine Corps is.”

Since then, despite all the leaps and bounds, African-Americans have made in the military (including having Barack Obama as the first commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces), less than 30 have obtained the rank of general in any form. Gen. Langley becomes the 74th person in the nation with the rank, preceded by the admission of 73 white men. 

Seven African-Americans have received three stars, the ranking of a lieutenant general.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Langley spent all of his life connected to the service. Before moving and setting up roots in Texas, he grew up on a number of military bases all over. By 1985, he boasted a degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

The 37-year veteran has commanded at every level in the Marine, from platoon to regiment, taking overseas tours in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa. He has also worked in senior staff positions at the Pentagon and the military’s Central Command, the agency with the armed services that oversees operations in the Middle East.

Gen. Langley said he was proud of this moment.

“The milestone and what it means to the Corps is quite essential. Not because of the mark in history,” he said. “But what it will affect going forward, especially for those younger across society that want to aspire and look at the Marine Corps as an opportunity.”

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