WASHINGTON — Within the military, there have already been countless promotion ceremonies this yr, held on Army bases, aircraft carriers and even, in a single case, an escarpment overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.
But on Saturday there was one for the history books. Gen. Michael E. Langley, 60, became the primary Black Marine to receive a fourth star on his shoulder — a landmark achievement within the corps’ 246-year history. With that star, he becomes one among only three four-star generals serving within the Marine Corps — the service’s senior leadership.
In an emotional ceremony on the Marine Barracks in Washington, General Langley, whose next project shall be to guide United States Africa Command, acknowledged the burden of his promotion. Before Saturday, the Marine Corps had never given 4 stars to anyone who was not a white man.
Referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order that desegregated the Marine Corps during World War II, General Langley listed a slew of Black Marines who went before him. They included Frank E. Petersen Jr., the primary Black man to turn out to be a Marine Corps general, and Ronald L. Bailey, the primary Black man to command the First Marine Division. Each men topped out at lieutenant general.
General Langley’s promotion has electrified Black Marines. On Thursday, a slew of them ambushed him when he appeared at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia to get recent uniforms to take with him to Stuttgart, Germany, where Africa Command relies.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, sir,” General Langley, in an interview, recalled one star-stuck Black major saying. “I just need to shake your hand.”
Soon, more Marines — Black and white, men and ladies — were asking to take pictures with the brand new four-star general.
At Saturday’s ceremony, five officers sat in a row watching the proceedings. They were a part of an expeditionary warfare training class at Quantico that the Marine commandant, Gen. David H. Berger, visited on Wednesday. Around 45 minutes into General Berger’s seek advice from the category, Capt. Rousseau Saintilfort, 34, raised his hand. “How can I be there Saturday?” he asked.
“It didn’t click on me at first because everyone was asking questions on amphibious stuff and tactics, and he asked me about Saturday,” General Berger said on the ceremony, to laughter.
Capt. Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who got here up from Quantico with Captain Saintilfort, said in an interview that “all these friends began messaging me, saying, ‘You’re going to be next.’”
“I don’t know if I’m going to stay around that long,” he said, “but just the proven fact that junior Marines can see this, they are going to see that irrespective of what background you come from, you may achieve within the Marine Corps so long as you perform.”
For the Marine Corps, the promotion of General Langley is a step that has been a protracted time coming. Because the corps began admitting African American troops in 1942, the last military service to achieve this, fewer than 30 have obtained the rank of general in any form. Not one had made it to the highest four-star rank, an honor the Marines have bestowed on 73 white men.
Seven African Americans reached lieutenant general, or three stars. The remaining have received one or two stars, a majority in areas from which the Marine Corps doesn’t select its senior leadership, like logistics, aviation and transport.
General Langley, who oversaw Marine forces on the East Coast in his last posting, has commanded at every level, from platoon to regiment, during his 37-year profession. He served overseas in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa, and he has also had several senior staff jobs on the Pentagon and on the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations within the Middle East.
After a Latest York Times article in 2020 in regards to the dearth of Black Marine generals, General Berger was asked why the corps had not promoted an African American to its top ranks in its entire history. “The truth of it’s: Everybody is basically, really, really good,” he said in an interview with Defense One. “For each 10 we pick, every 12, we could pick 30 more — every bit nearly as good.”
General Langley’s promotion is especially poignant provided that his great-uncle was one among the Montford Point Marines, who were the primary Black recruits to affix the Marine Corps after it began admitting African Americans in 1942. They trained at Montford Point in North Carolina, which was separate from Camp Lejeune, where white recruits trained.
It had taken Roosevelt’s executive order to force the commandant of the Marine Corps on the time, Thomas Holcomb, to open the service to Black men. “If it were an issue of getting a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes,” the Marine commandant once said, “I might fairly have the whites.”
Now, one among the corps’ three senior leaders says things have modified.
“Mentally we’ve learned that there’s greater value within the collective than simply the monolithic perception of what the makeup of the Marine Corps is,” General Langley said. He said that his hope was that Black Marines would view the corps as a spot where they’d not be hampered by a glass ceiling.