WASHINGTON — In the military, there have already been countless promotion ceremonies this year, held on military bases, aircraft carriers and even, in one 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 first Black Marine to receive a fourth star on his shoulder – a historic achievement in the corps’ 246-year history. With this star, he becomes one of only three four-star generals serving in the Marine Corps – the service’s senior leadership.
In a moving ceremony at Marine Barracks in Washington, General Langley, whose next assignment will be to lead United States Africa Command, acknowledged the weight of his promotion. Prior to Saturday, the Marine Corps had never awarded four stars to anyone who was not a white male.
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 preceded him. They included Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first black man to become a general in the Marine Corps, and Ronald L. Bailey, the first black man to command the First Marine Division. Both men finished lieutenant general.
General Langley’s promotion electrified the Black Marines. A slew of them ambushed him on Thursday when he appeared at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia to get new uniforms to take with him to Stuttgart, Germany, where Marine Command Africa is based.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, sir,” General Langley, in an interview, recalled a star-stuck black saying. “I just want to shake your hand.”
Soon more Marines — black and white, male and female — were asking to take pictures with the new four-star general.
At Saturday’s ceremony, five officers sat in a row to watch the proceedings. They were part of an expeditionary warfare training class at Quantico that Navy Commander Gen. David H. Berger visited on Wednesday. About 45 minutes into General Berger’s speech to the class, Captain Rousseau Saintilfort, 34, raised his hand. “How can I be there on Saturday?” He asked.
“I didn’t like it at first because everyone was asking about amphibious stuff and tactics, and he asked me about Saturday,” General Berger said at the ceremony, laughing. .
Captain Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who came from Quantico with captain Saintilfort, said in an interview that “all these friends started texting me saying, ‘You’re going to be next’.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to stay that long,” he said, “but just the fact that junior Marines can see that, they’ll see that no matter what background you come from, you can make it in the Marines. Body as long as you perform.
For the Marine Corps, General Langley’s promotion is a long overdue step. Since the corps began admitting African-American troops in 1942, the last military service to do so, less than 30 have achieved the rank of general in any form. None had achieved four-star rank, an honor the Marines bestowed on 73 white men.
Seven African Americans have achieved the rank of lieutenant general, which is three stars. The rest received one or two stars, a majority in areas from which the Marine Corps does not choose its senior leadership, such as logistics, aviation and transportation.
General Langley, who oversaw Marine forces on the East Coast during his last posting, commanded at every level from platoon to regiment during his 37-year career. He served overseas in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa, and he also held several staff positions at the Pentagon and at Army Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.
After a 2020 New York Times article about the Black Marine’s shortage of generals, General Berger was asked why the corps hadn’t promoted an African American to its highest ranks in its entire history. “The reality is this: everyone is really, really, really good,” General Berger said in an interview with Defense One. “For every 10 we choose, every 12, we could choose 30 more – just as well.”
General Langley’s promotion is particularly poignant given that his great-uncle was one of the Montford Point Marines, who were the first black recruits to join 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 then-Marine Corps commandant Thomas Holcomb to open the service to black men. “If it was to have a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 blacks,” the Marine commander once said, “I’d rather have the whites.”
Now, one of the corps’ three top leaders says things have changed.
“Mentally, we have learned that there is greater value in the collective than just the monolithic perception of what the make-up of the Marine Corps is,” Gen. Langley said. He said he hoped the Black Marines would view the corps as a place where they would not be hindered by a glass ceiling.