BREMERTON, Wash. –
Since 1976, every February in the U.S. has been celebrated as Black History Month. This month marks an opportunity for Americans to take a deeper look at the contributions of the Black community to our nation’s history, heritage and progress. This year’s theme is “Inspiring Change,” a theme focused on those who have led the charge in calling out iniquities and whose courage has transformed our nation’s definitions of freedom and equality.
The “American Dream,” a phrase coined in 1931 by freelance writer James Truslow Adams in his book Epic of America, was defined as “Not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
It’s a lofty ideal with roots in the frontier life of America’s first European inhabitants, and one that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously drew from in his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963. But, historically, this ideal has not been equally attainable for all citizens. It has taken brave men and women throughout history to inspire the change that would break down barriers for the Black community and give them the opportunity to fully pursue the American Dream.
For example, Naval History and Heritage Command notes a 1945 hunger strike in Port Hueneme, California, where 1,000 Black Seabees in the nearly all-Black 34th Construction Battalion protested when their commanding officer "refused to promote any African American to a chief petty officer billet, despite the fact that many of the senior enlisted Black Sailors in the battalion had served two years overseas and fully deserved advancement. The hunger strike enabled the men involved to avoid arrest for mutiny while they publicized their grievances. No violence erupted and the hunger strike resulted in the dismissal of the commanding officer, and his executive officer."
Even though Black Sailors had contributed to every American war effort since the Revolutionary War, they were deliberately kept from positions of authority and high rank. It wasn’t until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that our nation’s military began the process of full integration, and new doors were opened for Black service members.
Despite the slow march toward equality, stories began to emerge more frequently of the courage and determination of Black Sailors and Navy leaders who recognized where progress was still needed — and who took the initiative to make it happen.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. E.R. Zumwalt Jr. issued Z-Gram 66 in 1970, outlining his observations on the continued discrimination of minority personnel and the immediate steps he wanted taken to remedy it. Zumwalt noted, "I sincerely believed that I was philosophically prepared to understand the problems of our Black Navymen and their families, and until we discussed them at length, I did not realize the extent and deep significance of many of these matters."
He gave commanders less than a month to take action on the directives he outlined, and many of the "firsts" for Black Sailors can trace their roots to the impact Z-Gram 66 had on the Fleet.
From the Centennial Seven, the only African Americans to command submarines during the 20th century, to Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle, the Navy's first Black female fighter pilot, Black history continues to be written in the Navy. Likewise, the tradition of courage and perseverance continues to carry on.
(NOTE: You can read the full text of Z-Gram 66 at https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/z/list-z-grams/z-gram-66.html.)