As the so-called “father of the modern navy”, Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis wielded immense power in Congress.
During the Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Navy John Lehman in 1981, Stennis warned him that “the money is going to be plentiful for a while…but it’s not a license for the ‘use carelessly in any way except frugally, as I see it’, according to “Glory Fall” by Gregory Vistica.
Stennis was equally frugal in recognizing and supporting the rights of black Americans. He had previously exercised this power to publicly reprimand Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt by ordering hearings into “permissiveness” in the Navy as Zumwalt tried to implement cultural changes in response to racial unrest. In a meeting with Zumwalt, Stennis said that “they [Blacks] came down from the trees much later than us,” according to Zumwalt’s memoir, “On guard.”
In 1988, no one in power in the Department of Defense or Congress would have dared to question Ronald Reagan’s naming of a capital ship after such a powerful figure, despite his long history of opposition to civil rights.
It was then; it is now. The world has changed.
In 2020, partly in response to the murder of George Floyd, the DoD lifted the Naming commission provide Congress with naming, renaming, and deletion recommendations for all DoD bases and assets whose names honor the confederate states of america or people who served with the Confederacy.
The commission released its final report on September 19 and disbanded on October 1. By focusing on just one period, however, a historic opportunity was missed – one of a much more recent, highly visible and equally divisive nature: an aircraft carrier at the end of the pier. To understand this problem, one must dive deep into the uncomfortable history of the segregationist namesake of this incredibly powerful warship: Senator John C. Stennis.
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 horribly unfair he lost his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Mississippi. As a lawyer, he knew the men had been beaten and tortured into confessing, despite no evidence of their involvement, resulting in their conviction and death sentence. It took a week. Imagine a black defendant appearing before a man with this history, as a judge in his later duties. Upon his election to Congress, Joe Biden took over the Congressional office from Stennis, working at the conference table where the infamous Southern Manifesto was written, and which Senator Stennis had proudly called “the flagship of the Confederacy”.
Born in 1901, Stennis probably knew and revered the men who served in the Confederate armed forces and fully subscribed to their belief that black people were inferior and subhuman, requiring subjugation and control. His lifelong opposition to civil rights and equality for all is well documented.
Stennis maintained this position publicly until his time in history, but President Ronald Reagan ensured that his name would not be, largely due to his tax support of the Navy and ignoring his support. unfailing to racial segregation. Undoubtedly, Stennis personified and perpetuated racist beliefs.
The decision of the Naming Commission to highlight the problem Ku Klux Klan part of an American history plaque at West Point Military Academy — commemorating a movement outside of the period but intimately tied to the Confederacy — provides a precedent for examining the larger issue of racist naming conventions.
While West Point leaders attempted to resolve the background to the 1964 installation of the problematic bronze plaque, there was no such action by the Navy regarding calls to rename the Stennis . What is a small bronze plate compared to a 100,000 ton power projection platform that has crisscrossed the globe 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?
We can ask ourselves “When does it stop? Why not also rename the George Washington? 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 another era wins out; he owned slaves but worked to free them.
One hundred years after the end of slavery, Stennis was still fighting for Lost cause of the Confederacy. True confession: This author once drove with a Confederate flag license plate, unaware (perhaps willfully) of its offensive nature but, unlike Stennis, who fought for racial equality until his deathbed , I have learned – and changed – over the years.
While this change isn’t in the letter of the Naming Commission’s charter, it certainly seems to fit the spirit. In this vein, there is no need for further study; it would not only be historically correct, but morally correct, for this issue to be addressed directly by Congress and the Navy.
As a career naval officer, I understand the importance of tradition – but it goes both ways; there’s a reason ‘tradition’ was removed from the navy fundamental values in 1994. With a “Get Real/Get Better” mandate, the Navy can no longer be a bystander, silently looking away and expecting sailors to believe that its commitment to change is real.
Let me be clear – this recommendation in no way calls into question the history of this mighty warship or the accomplishments of those sailors who served her; in fact, it is meant to honor them.
I shared the draft of this article with a young black officer, and she shared a profound thought: “We post artifacts that speak to our values, and we leave them to our children. It shapes the identity of who we are for future generations. For your generation, making the decision to leave this name on this ship means that you have chosen to make it part of our common identity in the future.
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 mid-life refueling; Now is the perfect time to change your name and navigate the future.
Dr. John P. Cordle retired from the Navy as a Captain after 30 years of service, including two tours of command and as Chief of Staff Naval Surface Forces Atlantic. He has been recognized for his work in the area of circadian rotations and crew endurance with the Navy League’s John Paul Jones Award and the BUMED Epictetus Award for Innovative and Inspirational Leadership.
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