WASHINGTON – Blacks have made great strides in the military since it was integrated 60 years ago, but they still struggle to gain a foothold in the higher ranks, where less than 6 percent of U.S. general officers are African-American.
At a ceremony commemorating the day President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, military officials and black leaders said the U.S. must not rest on its laurels.
"My hope and expectation is that, in the years ahead, more African-Americans will staff the armed forces at the highest levels," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a crowd that included many black former service members. "We must make sure the American military continues to be a great engine of progress and equality."
While blacks make up about 17 percent of the total force, they are just 9 percent of all officers, according to data obtained and analyzed by The Associated Press.
The rarity of blacks in the top ranks is apparent in one startling statistic: Only one of the 38 four-star generals or admirals serving as of May was black. And just 10 black men have ever gained four-star rank -- five in the Army, four in the Air Force and one in the Navy, according to the Pentagon.
As a result, younger African-American soldiers have few mentors of their own race. And as the overall percentage of blacks in the service falls, particularly in combat careers that lead to top posts, the situation seems unlikely to change.
Still, officials this week can point to some historic gains by blacks in the services as the Pentagon commemorates Truman's signing of an executive order on July 26, 1948, mandating the end of segregation in the military.
Best known among the four-stars is retired Gen. Colin Powell, who later became the country's first black secretary of state, under President George W. Bush.
In a stirring salute in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday, Powell said that as a youngster in 1948, it never occurred to him that he could rise to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But when he joined the military 10 years later, "they no longer cared whether I was black or white, immigrant kid or not," Powell told the crowd, which was dotted with the red blazers of Tuskegee Airmen -- the first group of black fighter pilots allowed into the U.S. Army Air Corps that flew in World War II. "The only thing my commanders ever told me from 1958 for the rest of my career, is 'Can you perform?' And that's all we have ever asked for."
Another of the military's few black four-stars is retired Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, who in 1961, at age 17, spied an "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster and joined the Army.
The second of 12 children, Wilson grew up in a housing project outside Cleveland. Enlisting in the Army, he said, was the only way he could get a college education.
As a young recruit, he found that the older, black noncommissioned officers were eager to guide him, and they urged him to try for Officer Candidate School. Over the next 38 years, he rose through the ranks to become a four-star general.
Why haven't more done the same?
For one thing, Wilson said, "It's hard to tell young people the sky's the limit when they look up and don't see anyone" who looks like them.
According to Pentagon data, as of May:
-- 5.6 percent of the 923 general officers or admirals were black.
-- Eight blacks were three-star lieutenant generals or vice admirals.
-- Seventeen were two-star major generals or rear admirals.
-- Twenty-six were one-star brigadier generals or rear admirals.
-- Three of the black one-stars were women.
The Army has led the way with black officers, with nearly double the percentage at times over the past three decades as the other services. Blacks represented 11 percent to 12 percent of all Army officers during that time, compared with 4 percent to 8 percent in the Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The reasons for the lack of blacks in the higher ranks are many and complex, ranging from simple career choices to Congress and family recommendations. Most often mentioned is that black recruits are showing less interest in pursuing combat jobs, which are more likely to propel them through the officer ranks.
"Kids I've spoken to, who choose to do supply, who choose to do lawyer, who choose to do admin, have the impression that, 'If I go to Army and become an infantry person, that is not a skill that I can carry to the civilian work force,"' said Clarence Johnson, director of the Pentagon's Office of Diversity Management.
Wilson -- who specialized in logistics and did not take the combat route -- said he does not believe college programs or the military steer black recruits to the non-combat jobs -- although that may have been a problem many years ago.
Instead, he said young black officers choose other fields because "they want to prepare for a future outside of the military, and they believe that being in communications, being in logistics will provide them a better opportunity to succeed."
In 1998, nearly a quarter of all active duty black officers were in various combat fields. As of this month, that had fallen to 20 percent, compared with nearly 40 percent for nonblacks, according to Pentagon data.
This year, roughly half of all black active duty officers gravitated toward supply, maintenance, engineering and administrative jobs -- almost double the rate of nonblack officers.
"That tells me, honestly, over the years the pipeline for those blacks going to general officer is not going to be markedly improved above what it is now," Johnson said.
He said he hears recruits say, "I'm joining this ROTC thing, so that when I get out in four years or eight years, whatever time frame it is, I want a skill I can use." ROTC is a officer trainingp program at U.S. colleges and universities.
Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, echoes those pipeline concerns.
"It's all about how many people you put in the front end of the pipe," Austin said in an interview from Baghdad. "It's very difficult for anybody to get to be a colonel or general in any branch of the service if you don't have enough young officers coming in."
Austin took the combat path to his three-star rank, starting as an infantryman and tactical officer. Later -- as a general officer -- he commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The forces he sees now, he said, are far more diverse than when he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975. Then, he said, blacks made up only about 2.5 percent of the Army's general officer corps.
"We treasure diversity because it brings in a lot of different viewpoints and blends in a lot of cultures," he said. "It makes us better."
To achieve that diversity, he said, the military must encourage more blacks to join, highlight the successes of those who have done well and "talk about the opportunities that are offered and how those opportunities can help them in their quest to be successful people."