By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 17, 2009 - During the summer of 1965, after his first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, Mike Mullen watched on television from his parents' surburban Los Angeles home as the black neighborhood of Watts erupted in violence. He recalls those images to this day. For nearly a week that August, a race riot engulfed Watts, resulting in 34 deaths and injuring more than a thousand. On a map of Los Angeles, the white middle-class suburb where Mullen grew up is close to Watts, but for the young midshipman, the two neighborhoods were worlds apart.
"I was watching my black-and-white television 15 miles from Watts, and Watts was burning," Mullen recalled today as he helped launch a commission to improve diversity in the military. "And I didn't have a clue where it was, except that it was somewhere down by the coliseum where I would go as a kid to watch the Lakers play.
"It was a searing experience for me because I didn't know, and yet I was so close," he continued. "And that stays with me today, in terms of what I know and what I don't know, and what I can know having grown up where I did."
For Mullen, the Watts riots represent an early lesson in an understanding of American race relations that evolved across a Navy career which has brought him to his current post as an admiral and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest-ranking military officer.
Mullen, the senior military advisor to the country's first black president, places diversity in the military ranks as one of his top priorities. But during a conference on the subject here today, the admiral discussed how his recognition of the value of a diverse U.S. fighting force is an education that spans his time in uniform.
One influence on Mullen was Charles Bolden, a retired Marine major general who made news this year when President Barack Obama appointed him as the first African American to head NASA. But before the two men ascended to the leadership roles they now hold, Mullen and Bolden were classmates at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Bolden hailed from Columbia, South Carolina, which was then part of the Jim Crow South where racial discrimination was often the rule, not the exception.
"We came from different places, believe me," Mullen said. "And Charlie taught me that. And he taught me in such a graceful, dignified way ... as he was blazing trails that I didn't even understand."
A few years after the two midshipmen graduated from the academy, Mullen was a junior officer when then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. instituted reforms to improve race relations in the Navy.
"Zumwalt said, 'Boom! We're changing,'" Mullen said of jarring shifts the top Naval officer ushered in. "I was open to this."
In hindsight, the chairman recalled that this period of sweeping reform was a "very dangerous" and "extremely painful" time in Navy history. It was during this era in 1972 when two nefarious incidents aboard American ships in Southeast Asia highlighted underlying racial tension.
On the evening of Oct. 12, 1972, a series of incidents broke out wherein a group of black sailors, armed with chains, wrenches and other dangerous weapons, "went marauding through sections of the ship disobeying orders to cease, terrorizing the crew and seeking out white personnel," according to a Congressional Record report available on a U.S. Navy Web site.
Following the fighting aboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, three men were seriously injured, and many others, including black Navy personnel, required medical treatment. The incident on the Kitty Hawk and a disruption with similar racial overtones a month later on the U.S.S. Constellation were a cry for change, according to Mullen.
"I would argue that [today] we're better than that in terms of making this a priority and execution of change," Mullen said. But he added that change should flow down from top military leaders, many of whom don't act aggressively enough on behalf of diversity or simply don't understand its importance.
"If we don't understand it, we can't lead it," Mullen said, "even if we make it a priority."
Describing another episode that shaped his outlook on military diversity, Mullen recalled an incident from his days as chief of naval operations. In an Aug. 17, 2005 speech to the National Naval Officers Association in New Orleans – just weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and highlighted racial inequities there -- Mullen told the audience that diversity is critical to the Navy's success. A Navy news article quoted him as saying "I believe from my heart that diversity strengthens the very fabric of who we are."
But Mullen today acknowledged that his presence sent mixed signals. The staff of Navy personnel he had surrounded himself with -- comprised entirely of white males -- did not square with the message he espoused.
"I walked in there with an all-white-male staff," he recalled. "One of the pieces of feedback I got from that visit was, 'Nice try, but what about your staff?' It was a big message." As a result, Mullen redoubled efforts to diversify his staff, exemplifying the kind of diversifying change he saw as necessary.
Two years after his speech in New Orleans -- and after he had adopted the kind of policies he had championed -- Mullen attended a poignant farewell ceremony for several outgoing members of his personal staff.
"It was absolutely the best staff I'd ever had," he recalled. "And I can't remember if there was a white male on that staff."
The chairman said that when he considers the time he spent in uniform surrounded by his own demographic group, it's a reminder of opportunities lost.
"What was sad to me about that as I looked at that picture was [to] look at what I have missed," he said, referring to a photograph taken the night of the staff's farewell ceremony. "It took me until I got to be [chief of naval operations]. So that's what we've been missing, and you don't know that until you figure out you're missing it."
The conference Mullen helped launch today was the kick-off of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, a congressionally-mandated group established last year to look into how to best diversify the U.S. military. Some of the diversity challenges that remain are a dearth of minorities – women, Hispanics, African Americans and other groups – in senior leadership positions, officials said.
In a bold endorsement of military diversity, Mullen today said having a military that reflects the demographics of the United States is "a strategic imperative for the security of our country." One of the ways to create more parity among the makeup of senior officers is to give minorities more opportunities to shine, the admiral said.
"There are key jobs, and everybody knows that," he said. "And I'm a big believer of putting somebody who's qualified in it and giving them an opportunity – and they either sink or swim."
After acknowledging some of the challenges associated with his push, Mullen cited a promising statistic that came from his alma mater. At the Naval Academy, where four decades ago his classmate Charles Bolden blazed trails as one of the few black midshipmen, this year's incoming class comprises a student body in which one in three students is a minority.
Underscoring the urgency at hand, Mullen said such midshipmen and other junior officers of today embody the flag officers of the future.
"Whatever decisions we make right now, that's where we are for 30 years," he said.
(To comment on this article or if you have questions, e-mail John J. Kruzel at John.Kruzel@osd.mil.)