WASHINGTON — In the military, there have already been countless promotion ceremonies this year, held on military bases, aircraft carriers and even, in one case, on a hill overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.
But Saturday was one for the history books. Gen. Michael E. Langley, 60, became the first Black Marine to receive a fourth star on his shoulder — a landmark achievement in the corps’ 246-year history. With that star, he becomes one of three four-star generals serving in the Marine Corps — in the service’s senior leadership.
In an emotional ceremony at the Marine Corps 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 awarded four stars to anyone who was not white.
Referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order disbanding the Marine Corps during World War II, General Langley listed a number of Black Marines who went before him. They included Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first black to become a Marine Corps general, and Ronald L. Bailey, the first black to command the First Marine Division. Both men outlasted the lieutenant general.
General Langley’s promotion has electrified the Black Marines. On Thursday, a crowd of them ambushed him when he showed up at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia to pick up new uniforms to take with him to Stuttgart, Germany, where the Africa Command is based.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, sir,” General Langley recalled, in an interview, a saying of a star-studded black major. “I just want to shake your hand.”
Soon, more Marines — black and white, men and women — were asking to take pictures with the new four-star general.
At Saturday’s ceremony, five officers sat in a row watching the proceedings. He was part of an expeditionary warfare training class at Quantico visited by Marine Commandant Gen. David H. Berger 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?” asked.
“It didn’t click with me at first because everyone was asking about amphibious stuff and tactics, and he asked me about Saturday,” Gen. Berger said at the ceremony, laughing.
Capt. Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who came from Quantico with Capt. Saintilfort, said in an interview that “all these friends started texting me saying, ‘You’re going to be next.’
“I don’t know if I’ll stay that long,” he said, “but just the fact that the junior Marines can see that, they’ll see that no matter what background you come from, you can make it in the Marine Corps as long as you perform.”
For the Marine Corps, General Langley’s promotion is a step long overdue. Since the corps began accepting African-American troops in 1942, the last military service to do so, fewer than 30 have attained the rank of general in any form. None managed to top four stars, an honor the Marines bestowed on 73 white men.
Seven African Americans reached the rank of brigadier general, or three stars. The rest have received one or two stars, the majority in fields from which the Marine Corps does not select its senior leadership, such as logistics, aviation and transportation.
General Langley, who oversaw Marine forces on the East Coast in his last deployment, commanded at every level, from platoon to regiment, during his 37-year career. He served overseas in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa and also held several senior staff positions at the Pentagon and the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.
Following a 2020 New York Times article about the lack of Black Marine generals, General Berger was asked why the corps had not promoted an African-American to its top ranks in its entire history. “The reality is: Everyone is really, really, really 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 were trained.
It took Roosevelt’s executive order to force the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Thomas Holcomb, to open the service to Black men. “If it was a Marine Corps with 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes,” the Marine commandant once said, “I’d rather have the whites.”
Now, one of the corps’ top three leaders says things have changed.
“Intellectually we’ve learned that there’s more value in the collective than the monolithic notion of what the composition of the Marine Corps is,” General Langley said. He said his hope was that Black Marines would see the corps as a place where they wouldn’t be held back by a glass ceiling.