- 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"