WASHINGTON — In the military, there have been numerous promotional ceremonies this year, held at army bases, aircraft carriers and even, in one case, a ramp overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.
But Saturday was one for the history books. Gene. Michael E. Langley, 60, became the first black Marine to wear a fourth star on his shoulder — a milestone in the Corps’ 246-year history. With that star, he becomes one of only three four-star generals to serve in the Marine Corps – the service’s senior leadership.
In an emotional ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington, General Langley, whose next assignment will be to lead the United States Africa Command, acknowledged the weight of his promotion. Before Saturday, the Marine Corps had never given four stars to anyone who was not white.
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. Among them were 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 were top notch with Lieutenant Generals.
General Langley’s promotion has electrified Black Marines. On Thursday, a slew of them ambushed him when he showed up at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia to fetch new uniforms to take to Stuttgart, Germany, where Africa Command is based.
“Hold on, hold on, sir,” General Langley recalled a star-studded black major in an interview. “I just want to shake your hand.”
Soon, more Marines — black and white, men and women — were asking to take photos with the new four-star general.
During Saturday’s ceremony, five officers sat in a row to watch the trial. They were part of a warfare expedition course at Quantico that the Marine Commander, General David H. Berger, visited on Wednesday. About 45 minutes after General Berger spoke to the class, Captain Rousseau Saintilfort, 34, raised his hand. “How can I be there on Saturday?” he asked.
“It didn’t click with me at first because everyone was asking questions about amphibious things and tactics, and he asked me about Saturday,” General Berger said, laughing during the ceremony.
Captain Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who came from Quantico with Captain Saintilfort, said in an interview that “all these friends started messaging me and saying, ‘You’re going to be next.'”
“I don’t know if I can last that long,” he said, “but just by seeing junior Marines see this, they’ll see that no matter what background you come from, you can accomplish something in the Marine Corps.” as long as you perform.”
For the Marine Corps, the promotion of General Langley is a long-overdue step. Since the Corps began admitting African American troops in 1942, the last military service to do so, fewer than 30 have attained the rank of general in any form. No one had achieved the highest rank of four stars, an honor bestowed by the Marines on 73 white men.
Seven African Americans achieved lieutenant general, or three stars. The rest have been awarded one or two stars, a majority in areas from which the Marine Corps does not elect its senior leadership, such as logistics, aviation and transportation.
General Langley, who most recently oversaw the East Coast Marines, has commanded every level from platoon to regiment during his 37-year career. He served overseas in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa, and he has also held several senior staff positions with the Pentagon and the Army’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.
After a 2020 New York Times article about the Black Marine’s lack of generals, General Berger was asked why the Corps hadn’t promoted an African American to the highest ranks in its entire history. “The reality is: everyone is very, very, very good,” General Berger said in an interview with Defense One. “For every 10 we pick, every 12, we could pick 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 an executive order from Roosevelt to force then-Commander of the Marine Corps, Thomas Holcomb, to open the service to black men. “If it was a question of a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes,” the Marine Commander once said, “I’d rather have the whites.”
Now one of the three senior leaders of the force says things have changed.
“Mentally, we’ve learned that the collective has a greater value than just the monolithic perception of what the Marine Corps composition is,” General Langley said. He said he hoped black Marines would see the Corps as a place where they wouldn’t be hindered by a glass ceiling.