It may have been labeled a march for civil rights but the historic demonstration in Washington, D.C. in August 1963 had an impact on the nation’s military, too.
Before the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom there were no
African American four-star generals or admirals in the U.S. military. As America observes the 50th anniversary of the March, there are three generals in the Army, two in the Air Force and one Navy admiral.
The first African American four-star general was Air Force Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James. He first became a brigadier general in 1969.
“If the 1963 March had not taken place, there is no way we would have gotten the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Dad never would have become a general [four-star] in the Air Force. It was people like my father and others in the civil rights movement in 1963 who laid the …to allow the African American pursuit of excellence,” said
retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, son of “Chappie” James.
“The 1963 March on Washington strengthened and reinforced policy actions to ensure fair treatment were executed by senior military leaders during the 60's era to recognize the significance of civil rights as a military imperative,” said Jimmy Love of the Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity office of the Defense Department.
“The overriding philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech eventually led to grounds for the establishment of the Department of Defense Race Relations Institute in 1971, now known as the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute,” said Love.
“It is difficult for me to judge the effect of the specific event of the 1963 March on the upward mobility of African Americans in uniform,” said Brig. Gen. Clara Adams-Ender, the first nurse to command a military base.
“I do believe that the numbers of people who participated did influence and impress the politicians to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those laws had a direct effect upon the upward mobility of African Americans in uniform,” she said.
According to Andre Sayles, a West Point graduate and director of the Army’s diversity office, said, “It was not until the Academy graduating class of 1968 that you had double digits of cadets graduating to become lieutenants. That means they did not start to attend West Point in such numbers until 1964 which would have been after the March of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
“Do the math,” Chappie James’ son said. ”It is clear that we (meaning the armed forces) finally got busy with promoting African Americans after the King March of 1963; but, we have not finished our march. Diversity in the military needs to be improved,” said Lt. Gen. James.