John Darrell Sherwood. Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War Era. New York: New York University Press, 2007. ix + 344 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-4036-1.
Reviewed by Stephen K. Stein (Department of History, University of Memphis)
Published on H-War (July, 2008)
Racial Unrest in the U.S. Navy, 1972-73
John Sherwood, a historian at the Naval Historical Center, has previously written about aviators in the Vietnam War. In this book, he turns his attention to racial unrest in the U.S. Navy. While the title implies a broad approach to the topic, this book is actually narrowly focused on a handful of violent, racially motivated events that occurred toward the end of the Vietnam War in 1972 and 1973, when Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, the "man most responsible for reforming the navy's policies toward African-Americans in the twentieth century" served as Chief of Naval Operations (p. xiv). Zumwalt, who instituted a number of programs to address the problems minorities faced in the navy, is the focus of the book. Sherwood made heavy use of Zumwalt's papers in addition to Judge Advocate General reports on the events, and interviews with several participants in the outbursts of racial violence.
After surveying the history of racial tensions, institutionalized racism, and African-American service in the U.S. Navy in his first chapter, Sherwood contrasts the navy's experience with that of the army and Marine Corps in his second. The third chapter summarizes Zumwalt's reforms, while the succeeding five chapters, which form the core of the book, detail race riots aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and oiler Hassayampa and the comparatively peaceful sit-down strike on the aircraft carrier Constellation. The next two chapters summarize the congressional hearing on the riots, and then describe six other outbreaks of racial violence that were part of a wave of racial violence that swept the fleet, and affected more than a hundred ships and posts over the next two years. Sherwood concludes with a discussion of the successes of Zumwalt and his successor, Admiral James Holloway, in addressing racial tensions and problems in the navy.
Sherwood's narratives of the incidents are detailed and well told. Following his discussion of each incident, he examines their causes (returning to causation at the end of the book). Aboard the Kitty Hawk, de facto segregation, disproportionate assignment of blacks to the mess, laundry, and other unpleasant duties, and the captain's televised disciplinary hearings (captain's masts) exacerbated racial tensions and fed the perception that blacks received harsher punishments than whites. Similar conditions on the Hassayampa, along with frustrations caused by a lengthy cruise and heavy menial work, provoked discontent. Widespread drug use and the machinations of a charismatic black sailor and agitator may also have contributed to the riot. Both occurred out in the Pacific Ocean and away from the media.
The next incident, aboard the Constellation, occurred in the United States. Then outfitting for a deployment to Vietnam, the Constellation's crew worked long shifts in the hot ship, which lacked air conditioning. Constant construction noise made it impossible for many crewmen to sleep. As tensions mounted, black sailors protested their conditions and then launched a sit-down strike. The Constellation's captain ordered the dissidents off his ship. Joined on shore by other angry black sailors, and convinced that race played a role in their mistreatment, they quickly attracted media attention and became symbols of the navy's racial problems. Zumwalt and Secretary of the Navy John Warner personally intervened in the negotiations that ended the sit-down strike.
The Constellation strike triggered the Hicks Subcommittee hearings, two of whose three members focused on the supposed role played by agitators in orchestrating these riots and demonstrations. They, along with several other government officials and retired naval officers, argued that these agitators took advantage of the lax discipline and growing permissiveness in the ranks during the last years of the Vietnam War to provoke racial discord and violence. Sherwood argues that they hoped to use these hearings to derail Zumwalt's equal opportunity programs. Yet, Zumwalt acquitted himself well in the hearings, and the outbursts of racial unrest that occurred on more than a hundred ships and shore installations over the next two years underlined the navy's problems. A handful of agitators could not have caused all of these, and without widespread racial tensions in the fleet, agitation would have fallen on deaf ears.
Zumwalt's programs continued, and by May 1974, almost two-thirds of the navy's enlisted personnel had received race relations training. Yet, rather than providing a detailed assessment of these programs in his penultimate chapter on the "Struggle to Eliminate Bias in the Fleet," Sherwood focuses almost entirely on the antics of one overzealous race awareness instructor who panicked some students with repeated predictions of a coming race war while verbally humiliating others. Zumwalt's successor, James Holloway, eliminated many of the programs aimed at encouraging tolerance and racial awareness and harmony. Instead, he expanded programs for minority recruitment, education (including remedial education), and promotion, which addressed both a primary complaint of African American sailors and the navy's inability to prevent the spread of racially motivated violence. The Kitty Hawk's African American executive officer, for example, had played a central role in calming rioters by stepping "out of his officer persona" and talking to "the black sailors as a black man with the same language and passion" as Martin Luther King, but there were few black officers in positions of authority in the fleet (p. 101).
Sherwood argues that the army and Marines experienced widespread racial unrest three years before the navy (1968-69) because the navy had become a refuge for high-quality draftees seeking to avoid combat in Vietnam. An influx of sailors with lower scores on racially biased placement exams, many of whom were African American, helped provoke the unrest of 1972-74 as they encountered institutionalized racism in the navy. Black sailors were more likely to wind up working in the laundry or mess, and received administrative and disciplinary discharges at higher rates than whites with equivalent test scores. African American sailors, when confronted by institutional racism, "tended to draw inward and become paranoid rather than making strong efforts to address their concerns with the chain of command," and this increased their isolation (p. 102). In the nine incidents he examines, Sherwood argues that various combinations of the following conditions caused racial unrest: discrimination in promotion and job assignments; de facto segregation; a climate of racism that included the regular use of racial slurs by white sailors and violence against blacks; a racially biased discipline system (or at least the appearance of racial bias in discipline); ineffective minority affairs councils (established by Zumwalt) that lacked authority and influence with those in authority, and the lack of African Americans in the navy's chain of command. Extended wartime deployments, long shifts, and growing drug abuse exacerbated these problems.
This book is an important contribution to the study of race relations in the U. S. military, although it often fails to put the events it covers in a larger context. Sherwood opens his book with a brief description of the February 1970 race riot at the Great Lakes Correctional Center and notes that the Kitty Hawk's captain feared an Attica-like prison riot, but otherwise fails to connect racial unrest in the navy with the wave of riots that swept the nation's prisons in these years. Similarly, he refers to the "long hot summers" and race riots in American cities, but fails to connect them to racial violence in the navy. Sherwood also simplifies race into a simple black/white dichotomy, although his account highlights the need to study the problems faced by Hispanic, Asian, and Filipino sailors in this racially charged atmosphere. This book points up the need for a broader study of race in the navy, comparative studies of the armed services, and explorations of how racism and racial violence reflect or influence events in contemporary American society.
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Stephen K. Stein. Review of Sherwood, John Darrell, Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War Era.
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