A Tuskegee hero and the oldest living Black West Point grad reflect on the US military and its first Black defense secretary

lloyd austin
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin participates in a ceremonial swearing-in with Vice President Kamala Harris, far right, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 25, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

  • Secretary Lloyd Austin is the first Black person to lead the entire Defense Department.
  • “We have a secretary of defense who can say ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that,'” a Black veteran told Insider.
  • A Tuskegee airman said it was “just amazing how the attitudes in the military” have changed.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Two celebrated Black veterans who shattered the military’s color line heralded the arrival of the country’s first African-American defense secretary as an exceptionally qualified officer and a sign of how far the services have progressed from the days of discrimination and segregation they once faced.

“One of the things that’s unique about General [Lloyd] Austin, now Secretary Austin, is that he has commanded troops in combat at great levels during his generalship,” said retired Army Col. Clifford Worthy, one of the first Black West Point graduates after the desegregation of the military.

“He’s had such a distinguished career spent altogether.”

Worthy, who will be 93 years old in March, was one of the two Black leaders who told Insider it was “amazing” how much racial attitudes have changed in the US military. Worthy noted that “considering the state of affairs we’re in in this country,” he had “a sense of security” given Austin’s new role.

“You know, older I get, the more comforting it is to know that we have a secretary of defense who can say ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that,'” Worthy said.

clifford worthy
West Point cadet Clifford Worthy.

Worthy began his military career as a cadet in West Point in 1949, one year after President Harry Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the armed forces. The executive order, which was signed on the same day as a separate order to desegregate the federal workplace, mandated “that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

“Prior to that time, there were Black units and then there were white units,” Worthy said. “Everything changed in 1948.”

“Black young men did not dream of attending West Point when I was growing up,” Worthy wrote in his memoir, “The Black Knight: An African-American Family’s Journey from West Point – a Life of Duty, Honor and Country.” “That was a privileged preserve of white men whose families were among the elite or had somehow caught the attention of US congressmen. Anyone who took the time to research the history of black cadets would have been scared away.”

It was through happenstance in 1946 that he encountered a former cadet who encouraged him to apply for a recommendation letter from a congressional lawmaker, a prerequisite to enroll in a US military academy.

“I was visibly startled by the suggestion,” Worthy recounted of the cadet’s suggestion. “This was a preposterous idea!”

The former cadet persisted, arguing that “the only thing you have to risk is the cost of a three-cent postage stamp.”

Worthy eventually relented and mailed a letter to then-Democratic Rep. John Dingell Sr. of Michigan, who approved the recommendation. His mother, who did not know of Worthy’s application until the acceptance letter arrived in the mail, was not accustomed to military academies and viewed them as “out there someplace in the ‘for whites only’ world, like Hollywood or major league baseball,” Worthy wrote in the memoir.

It was these memories of “how things had progressed over the years” that flowed through his mind after hearing of Austin’s confirmation, Worthy said to Insider. He recalled the story of former US Army Lt. Henry Flipper, the first Black graduate of West Point in 1877, who was ostracized from his colleagues and staff members throughout his career.

Flipper, who was born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, shares the same hometown as Defense Secretary Austin, also a West Point graduate. The current West Point superintendent, US Army Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, is the first Black soldier to lead the 218-year-old institution.

“To think about how things could change since Flipper, and how now things have changed to the point we have a black secretary of defense …,” Worthy recounted, lost in thought.

Tuskegee airman Charles McGee, 100, and his great grandson Iain Lanphier react as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Tuskegee airman Charles McGee and his great grandson Iain Lanphier watches as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 4, 2020.

Retired Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, one of the remaining living members of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black service members to pilot fighters and bombers in World War II, also took note of the milestone.

“Back then, with the attitudes and so on, I wouldn’t have expected it to happen,” McGee told Insider. “It could’ve happened a long time ago, probably. But the general attitudes by the majority leadership didn’t. It just wasn’t happening. You couldn’t say it wasn’t possible.”

McGee, who is 101 years old, said it was “just amazing how the attitudes in the military” have changed since 1925, back when the Army War College released a racist study that claimed Black troops were inferior to whites – a claim that McGee and other Black troops would prove wrong. 

“Fortunately there were those leaders who believed in the opportunity [for us],” McGee said to Insider.

US Capitol Building riots
The aftermath of riots at the US Capitol Building.

Although Austin’s confirmation is considered a ground-breaking step in improving race relations, the Defense Department continues to face challenges that embroil the military in controversy.

Following the social unrest in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the military was thrust into the political spotlight – not only in its response in quelling the nationwide protests, but also due to allegations that it remains complacent in rooting out domestic terrorism and other far-right movements within its own ranks.

This reckoning culminated in the violent storming of the US Capitol in January, where 5 people, including a police office, died. Several of the rioters charged by prosecutors have since been found to have ties to the armed forces. Although military leaders contend that racist and right-wing extremist views are held only by a small minority of its troops, lawmakers have demanded the Defense Department to address the issue.   

“I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” Austin said during a Senate confirmation hearing in January. “The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”

Army special warfare special operations
US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School students at Civil Affairs Specialist and Psychological Operations Specialist Graduation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina December 18, 2019.

One example of the Defense Department’s actions to address the social unrest was to rename military bases that honor the namesake of Confederate-era leaders. The National Defense Authorization Act, which became law after Congress overrode President Donald Trump veto against it, includes a provision to rename bases and other military structures within three years.

For Clifford Worthy, the change is long overdue.

“The horrors of that Civil War and the long term impact on America since that time – we have not totally recovered from that,” Worthy said. “And it’s kind of a heart-rending … Some Confederate general who’s being honored. Why is he there?”

Charles McGee cautioned that any changes should be thoroughly investigated and ought to take into account whether it could have an adverse affect.

“It depends on how we use the change,” McGee said. “Because there probably will be those still around that won’t like the name picked for the change. So what has been accomplished?”

“I think we’re a long way from knowing whether the step is a good one … for the country,” McGee added. “There’s a lot that we have to look at and be careful [of]… does it serve all of us? Does it make it a better country?”

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Biden pens op-ed defending his choice of a recently retired general for Pentagon chief amid pushback from congressional lawmakers

lloyd austin
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III at Operating Base Adder in Iraq on Aug. 13, 2011.

  • President-elect Joe Biden defended his choice of Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief in an Atlantic op-ed on Tuesday.
  • Austin retired from the military less than seven years ago and would require a congressional waiver to become defense secretary. 
  • Some congressional Democrats are concerned that confirming Austin would run contrary to the norm of maintaining civilian control of the military.
  • Austin is poised to be the US’s first Black defense secretary but he faces major hurdles en route to confirmation.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President-elect Joe Biden in a new Atlantic op-ed on Tuesday explained and defended his choice of Lloyd Austin, a recently retired four-star general, for Secretary of Defense amid criticism from congressional lawmakers concerned about maintaining civilian control of the Pentagon. 

Biden addressed the consternation in the op-ed, saying, “I respect and believe in the importance of civilian control of our military and in the importance of a strong civil-military working relationship at DoD-as does Austin.”

He added: “We need empowered civilians working with military leaders to shape DoD’s policies and ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people. Austin also knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years. He will work tirelessly to get it back on track.”

Austin would need a congressional waiver to become defense secretary due to a federal law that requires military officers to wait at least seven years after their retirement from active duty before serving in top Pentagon roles. 

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned from the Trump administration in 2018, received such a waiver from Congress in 2017. But 17 Senate Democrats voted against the waiver for Mattis in 2017. This includes four current members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would play a crucial role in Austin’s confirmation process: Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden in his Tuesday op-ed urged Congress to grant Austin the same waiver. 

“Lloyd Austin retired from military service more than four years ago. The law states that an officer must have left the service at least seven years before becoming secretary of defense. But I hope that Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin, just as Congress did for Secretary Jim Mattis,” Biden wrote. 

“Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly,” the president-elect added. 

Having a civilian in the top role at the Pentagon is part of a tradition considered to be a fundamental aspect of American democracy.

“The Founding Fathers believed that subordination of the military to the authority of civil masters was critically important in order to prevent the emergence of a new form of tyranny or dictatorship,” Kathleen J. McInnis, an international security analyst, said in a 2017 Congressional Research Service report.

This principle is at the heart of congressional pushback to Biden tapping Austin to be Pentagon chief. 

“I have deep respect for Gen. Lloyd Austin. We worked together when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, when he was vice chief of the Army, and when he was the CENTCOM commander. But choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role designed for a civilian just feels off,” Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former acting assistant defense secretary, tweeted on Tuesday. 

“The job of secretary of defense is purpose-built to ensure civilian oversight of the military,” Slotkin added. 

Blumenthal, who opposed the waiver for Mattis and has indicated he will do the same for Austin, expressed similar views. 

The Connecticut Democrat said voting for the waiver for Austin would “contravene the basic principle that there should be civilian control over a nonpolitical military,” per the Associated Press.

If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary. Biden has made building a diverse Cabinet a top priority, which he underscored in his op-ed. 

“The next secretary of defense will have to make sure that our armed forces reflect and promote the full diversity of our nation. Austin will bring to the job not only his personal experience, but the stories of the countless young people he has mentored,” Biden said. 

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Biden picks retired US Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to head the Pentagon. If confirmed, he’d be the first Black man to lead the Defense Department.

lloyd austin
Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, addresses a crowd at Conmy Hall on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. Arlington, Virginia, January 31, 2012.

  • President-elect Joe Biden has picked a retired US Army general to lead the Defense Department, according to multiple news reports.
  • If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary to lead the US military.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President-elect Joe Biden has picked a retired US Army general to lead the Defense Department in his administration, according to a Politico report published Monday.

Lloyd Austin, a four-star general with over four decades in the military, was one of the leading candidates for Biden’s Cabinet, three people told Politico. Austin’s name was one of several that was thrown in the mix in recent weeks, including Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, who was widely believed to be the frontrunner for the top Pentagon position.

Several other news outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, confirmed Politico’s report by Monday evening.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary in the US.

Biden’s transition team had been considering other factors in addition to experience for their selection, including a candidate’s race, unnamed sources said in a previous Axios report. The former vice president was criticized by some Democrats for not naming qualified candidates of color for his Cabinet picks.

Biden’s team did not respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.

Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina told The Hill in late November that although he heard Black candidates were “given fair consideration,” only one Black person had been named to Biden’s cabinet. Former diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, was selected to be the next United Nations ambassador.

Since then, Biden has picked other Black staffers for Cabinet-level positions, including Cecilia Rouse for chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

lloyd austin
Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commanding general at Camp Baharia in Fallujah Iraq, during a holiday visit.

Austin first served in the Army in 1975 and graduated from West Point. He took on numerous leadership roles, having commanded all of the US’s troops in Iraq and helmed US Central Command, the combatant command responsible for all US operations in the Middle East, for three years. Austin retired in 2016 and founded the Austin Strategy Group, a consulting service in Washington, DC.

Austin was also on defense contractor Raytheon Technologies’ board of directors since 2016, as well as steel producer Nucor Corporation’s board.

“Back when I was a brand-new second lieutenant, I was ready to take on the world,” Austin said in a speech in 2016. “I wanted to get out and do great things.”

“I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to lead troops in combat,” he added. “I have seen our young leaders do amazing things in really tough and dangerous situations.”

Former Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson, who is also Black, was being considered by Biden for the Pentagon post, Politico reported. Some Democrats, however, reportedly expressed concern over Johnson for his tenure in the Obama administration.

Austin’s potential role still faces some challenges from Congress. Critics have long argued that defense secretaries must have had some level of separation from the military, given the political nature of their duties, and to avoid any bias based on their prior service.

Retired service members are also required to have been separated from the military for at least seven years, a requirement Austin has not fulfilled. Austin would need a waiver from Congress, just like James Mattis, a four-star US Marine Corps general, who served as President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary before resigning in 2018.

Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in 2017 that he would not support a similar waiver to Mattis’ in the future.

“Congress has enacted an exception one time since the creation of the Department of Defense,” Reed said, according to Defense News. “And waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation. Therefore I will not support a waiver for future nominees. Nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.”

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