Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The impressive strides that African Americans have made in the leadership ranks of the military following integration have all but stopped in recent years, and they now occupy just a tiny share of the nation's top military jobs.

Nearly 62 years after President Harry R. Truman signed an executive order to   desegregate the nation's Armed Forces, African Americans make up just 5.5 percent of the military's flag officers-generals, admirals and the equivalent, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. Overall, African-Americans comprise 17 percent of the nation's active duty forces in the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

The flattening of the number of African Americans in the military's very top ranks is a reflection both of the progress that African Americans have made in civilian life and of the professions African Americans tend to pursue in the new slimmed-down military, according to some experts. One need look no further than President Barack Obama, who will be honoring the nation's war dead at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago, to understand the nation's racial transformation.

Now, with job opportunities in the often lucrative defense industry and other fields open to African Americans as never before, more black officers are opting out of military careers in what once was one of the few fields that offered black people a chance at top leadership.

Meanwhile, African American officers are less likely than whites to serve in Special Forces and other elite combat units that are often on the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And those units are the ones from which many flag officers are chosen.

Advertisement

Roughly one in five black military officers serve in combat jobs— half the percentage for non-blacks. Rather than choosing combat, black officers tend to gravitate to administrative, engineering, supply and maintenance professions — areas that tend to translate best to civilian work. "The opportunity structure of America has changed. If people choose to do other things, you can't argue with that," said John Sibley Butler, a University of Texas professor, Vietnam veteran, and co-author of  All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. Butler acknowledged that combat experience is also crucial for military officers who want to make it to the very top. "It is certainly true that combat officers form the top leadership of the military," he said. "In the future, it is going to be those who have high-tech experience."

Alexander was instrumental in transforming the top ranks of the Army during his tenure as army secretary from 1977 through 1981. He once rejected alist of officers proposed for promotion to general because it included no black candidates, even though he believed many black colonels "had served with distinction." Alexander told the board that handled promotions to look more closely at the records of eligible black colonels-a process that resulted in strong black candidates being added to the promotion list.

One of the generals Alexander chose from that revised list was Colin Powell, who went on to become the nation's top military officer when President George H.W. Bush chose him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Advertisement

When President Jimmy Carter appointed Alexander to his post, the Army had no more than eight black generals, he recalled. By the time he left his post in 1981, there were 30 black generals in the Army -a testament to the power of strong leadership. Alexander said that while President Obama is commander-in-chief of the military, any change in promotion practices would be most effectively implemented by other civilian military leaders. "It would be a pleasant but empty gesture for the president to say something about it publicly," he said.

African Americans have served in every war since the Revolution. For much of that history, black troops were often forced into support roles, a form of discrimination that military leaders defended-despite all evidence—-by saying black soldiers lacked the necessary smarts to fight and lead in battle. Although Truman ordered the military to desegregate in July 1948,  the process was not completed until after the Korean War and racial divisions persisted for years afterward.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy decided to restart a committee to look into equal opportunity in the Armed Forces, which was aimed at devising ways to get more blacks into the military. Much of that work was made moot by the realities of the Vietnam War, where the draft brought many African Americans to the front lines.  During the height of the war, from 1965-1969, blacks formed 11 percent of the U.S. population and made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. Many of them served in combat, prompting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who opposed the conflict, to call it "a white man's war, a black man's fight."

Advertisement

As a result, the percentage of black officers in the Armed Forces nearly tripled even as the military contracted between 1976 and 2003, going from 3.4 percent to 9.1 percent. But that progress has stalled, with black officers now comprising 8.7 percent of the military's overall officer corps. That flattening is most pronounced at the highest ranks-a fact that has drawn the concern of Congress.

Beginning in 2007, members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a series of meetings with the military's top leadership to discuss ways to increase diversity within the senior officer corps. Those concerns led to formation of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which is examining policies that provide leadership opportunities for minorities in the Armed Forces.

The commission, which includes former military leaders and others, is looking at ideas from ways to further increase the number of blacks and other minorities who choose to attend service academies, to establishment of more Junior ROTC programs at the nation's high schools.

Advertisement

"Just as our military looks like America, so too must our general officers. If minorities are asked to go in harm's way, they must be allowed to lead as well," House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.)  said when the commission was formed. "A military that is proportionally representative of all races, cultures and ethnicities increases the readiness and efficiency of our fighting forces."

Those sentiments were echoed by Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fl.). "The truest melting pot in our society exists aboard aircraft carriers, in barracks and on bases. Mess halls and exchange service stores, shooting ranges and training facilities are portraits of diversity," Meek said.  "But in the officers' clubs, a much different picture emerges. The diversity reflected within the enlisted ranks is lacking within the senior officer corps."

In a world where opportunities are now better outside the military than inside, keeping diversity in the top ranks may be more difficult now than it was three decades ago.

Advertisement

Michael A. Fletcher is a national correspondent for the Washington Post.