As the so-called “father of the modern Navy,” Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis wielded immense power in Congress.
During the Senate confirmation hearing for Navy Secretary John Lehman in 1981, Stennis cautioned him that “Money is going to be plentiful for a while … but that is not a license to carelessly use it in any way except in a frugal way, as I see it,” according to “Fall from Glory” by Gregory Vistica.
Stennis was equally frugal with acknowledging and supporting the rights of Black Americans. He had previously wielded that power to publicly chastise Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt by ordering hearings on “permissiveness” in the Navy as Zumwalt was trying to implement cultural changes in response to racial unrest. During a meeting with Zumwalt, Stennis opined that “they [Blacks] had come down from the trees a lot later than we did,” according to the Zumwalt’s memoir, “On Watch.”
Back in 1988, no one in power within the Department of Defense or Congress would have dared question Ronald Reagan’s naming of a capital ship after such a powerful figure, despite his long record of opposing civil rights.
That was then; this is now. The world has changed.
In 2020, partially in response to the George Floyd murder, DoD stood up the Naming Commission to provide to Congress naming, renaming and removal recommendations for any bases and DoD assets whose names honor the Confederate States of America or people who served with the Confederacy.
The commission issued its final report Sept. 19 and disbanded Oct. 1. By narrowing the focus to one time period, however, an historic opportunity was missed — one of a much more recent, highly visible and just as divisive nature: an aircraft carrier at the end of the pier. To understand this issue requires a deep dive into the uncomfortable history of the segregationist namesake of this incredibly powerful warship: Sen. John C. Stennis.
My research into this chapter of history was prompted by the book “Black Officer, White Navy” by Lt. Cmdr. Reuben Keith Green, and I — like many — was blissfully unaware of Stennis’ segregationist history.
Stennis began his rise to national prominence on the brutally beaten backs of three Black sharecroppers, whom he prosecuted for murder in a case that was so horrifically unfair that he lost his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Mississippi. As a lawyer, he knew that the men were beaten and tortured into confessing, despite no evidence of their involvement, resulting in their conviction and death sentences. This took one week. Imagine a Black defendant coming before a man with this history, as a judge in his later capacity. Upon his election to Congress, Joe Biden assumed possession of Stennis’ congressional office, working at the conference table where the infamous Southern Manifesto was written, and that Sen. Stennis had proudly called “the flagship of the Confederacy.”
Born in 1901, Stennis likely knew and venerated men who served in the Confederate armed forces, and fully subscribed to their conviction that Blacks were inferior and subhuman, requiring subjugation and control. His lifelong opposition to civil rights and equality for all is well-documented.
Stennis maintained that position publicly until his passing into history, but President Ronald Reagan made sure his name would not, largely due to his fiscal support for the Navy and ignoring his staunch support for racial segregation. Without question, Stennis personified and perpetuated racist beliefs.
The Naming Commission’s decision to highlight the problematic Ku Klux Klan portion of a U.S. history plaque at the West Point Military Academy — memorializing a movement outside the time frame but intimately tied to the Confederacy — provides some precedent for looking at the larger issue of racist naming conventions.
While West Point leadership has attempted to address the context of the 1964 installation of the problematic bronze plaque, there has been no such action by the Navy regarding calls to rename the Stennis. What is a small bronze plaque compared to a 100,000-ton power projection platform that has been sailing the world for decades? What possible justification can be made for continuing this affront to diversity and inclusion, and why has the Navy remained silent on this issue?
One may ask “When does it stop? Why not rename the George Washington as well?” A fair question — if a bit hyperbolic — but perhaps the balance of positives (general of the American Revolution, first president and father of our country) in a different time carries the day; he owned slaves but worked to free them.
One hundred years after slavery’s end, Stennis was still fighting for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. True confession: This author once drove around with a Confederate flag license plate, ignorant (perhaps willfully so) of its offensive nature but, unlike Stennis, who fought racial equality to his deathbed, I have learned — and changed — over the years.
Despite this change not being within the letter of the Naming Commission’s charter, it certainly seems to fit the spirit. In that vein, there is no need for an additional study; it would not only be historically correct, but morally correct, that this issue be directly addressed by Congress and the Navy.
As a career naval officer, I understand the importance of tradition — but it cuts both ways; there is a reason “tradition” was removed form the Navy’s core values in 1994. With a mandate to “Get Real/Get Better,” the Navy can no longer be a bystander, silently looking away, and expect sailors to believe that its commitment to change is real.
Let me be clear — this recommendation in no way impugns the history of this mighty warship or the accomplishments of those sailors who have served her; in fact it is intended to honor them.
I shared the draft of this article with a young Black officer, and she shared a profound thought: “We display artifacts that speak to our values, and we leave them to our children. It shapes the identity of who we are for future generation. For your generation to make a decision to leave this name on this ship, means that you have chosen to make this a part of our common identity going forward.
Changing it would show that we have faced our history — and learned from it,” she said. “Which is more important, the past or the future?”
Point taken. The ship is in the process of a mid-life refueling; now is the perfect time to change the name and sail into the future.
Dr. John P. Cordle retired from the Navy as a captain after 30 years of service, including two command tours and serving as chief of staff for Naval Surface Forces Atlantic. He has been recognized for his work in the area of circadian watch rotations and crew endurance with the Navy League John Paul Jones Award and the the BUMED Epictetus Award for Innovative and Inspirational Leadership.
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