WASHINGTON — In the military, there have already been countless promotional ceremonies this year, held at Army bases, aircraft carriers and even, in one case, a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.
But on Saturday there was one for the history books. General Michael E. Langley, 60, became the first Black Marine to receive a fourth star on his shoulder—a historic achievement in the Corps’ 246-year history. With this star, he became one of only three four-star generals serving in the Marine Corps – the supreme command of the service.
At a moving ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington, General Langley, whose next mission will be to command US Africa Command, acknowledged the weight of his promotion. Prior to Saturday, the Marine Corps had not given four stars to anyone who was not white.
Referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order that desegregated the Marine Corps during World War II, General Langley listed a group of Black Marines who preceded him. They included Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first black man to become a Marine general, and Ronald L. Bailey, the first black man to command the 1st Marine Division. Both men topped the team level.
General Langley’s promotion electrified the Black Marines. On Thursday, a large number of them ambushed him when he showed up at Marine Corps base Quantico in Virginia to get a new uniform to take with him to Stuttgart, Germany, where Africa Command is based.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, sir,” General Langley said in an interview, recalling the words of a black major stuck in the stars. “I just want to shake your hand.”
Soon more Marines—black and white, both men and women—had been asked to pose for photos with the new four-star general.
At Saturday’s ceremony, five officers sat in a row and watched the proceedings. They were part of an expeditionary warfare training class at Quantico that the Navy’s commander, General David Berger, visited on Wednesday. About 45 minutes after General Berger spoke to the class, Capt. Rosso Santelfort, 34, raised his hand. “How can I be there on Saturday?” Asked.
“He didn’t click on me at first because everyone was asking questions about amphibious things and tactics, and asked me about Saturday,” General Berger said at the ceremony with a laugh.
“All these friends started texting me saying, ‘You’re going to be next,'” Capt. Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who came from Quantico with Captain Santelfort, said in an interview.
“I don’t know if I’ll last that long,” he said, “but just the fact that young Marines can see that, they’ll see that no matter what background you come from, you can make it happen in the Marines as long as you perform.”
For the Marine Corps, the promotion of General Langley is a long-overdue step. Since the Corps began accepting African American forces in 1942, the last military service to do so, fewer than 30 personnel have attained the rank of general by any means. No one ever reached the highest four-star rank, an honor bestowed by the Marines on 73 white men.
Seven African Americans have reached lieutenants, or three stars. The rest earned one or two stars, a majority in areas where the Marine Corps does not choose its top command, such as logistics, aviation, and transportation.
General Langley, who oversaw the East Coast Navy in his last position, commanded at every level, from platoon to regiment, during his 37-year career. He served abroad in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa, and also held several senior staff positions at the Pentagon and Army Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.
Following a 2020 New York Times article about the dearth of black Navy generals, General Berger was asked why the Corps had not promoted an African American to the highest 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 choose, every 12, we can pick another 30—every good bit.”
General Langley’s promotion is particularly poignant given that his great-uncle was a Marine at Mountford Point, who were the first black recruits to join the Marine Corps after it began accepting African Americans in 1942. They trained at Mountford Point in North Carolina, which was separate from Camp Lejeune, where white conscripts trained.
An executive order required Roosevelt to force the Marine Corps commander at the time, Thomas Holcomb, to open service to black men. “If it comes to a Marine Corps having 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I’d rather have the whites,” a Marine chief once said.
Now, one of the three senior commanders in the Legion says that things have changed.
“We’ve been taught mentally that there is more value in the collection than just a monolithic conception of what the makeup of the Marine Corps is,” General Langley said. He said his hope was that the Black Marines in the Corps would see a place unobstructed by a glass ceiling.