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Congress has voted to strip the names of Confederate generals from several Army bases. The president has vowed that won't happen. The issue might not even be resolved before Election Day. Meanwhile, the Navy is charting a whole new course. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Henry Kissinger called supercarriers 100,000 tons of diplomacy. That power is reflected in the Navy's conventions for naming them - the USS John F. Kennedy, the Reagan, the Lincoln. But one supercarrier now on the drawing board breaks sharply with tradition - the USS Doris Miller.
REGINA AKERS: That is the first time that that ship of that class would be named after, one, an enlisted person and an African American.
PRICE: Regina Akers is a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command. Doris "Dorie" Miller was one of the first American heroes of World War II. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, as his ship was sinking and captain dying, Miller jumped behind a machine gun and shot at Japanese planes until his ammunition was gone. Then he began rescuing sailors from the fiery waters of the harbor. As a Black sailor in 1941, he wasn't even supposed to fire a gun.
AKERS: One of the ways in which the Navy discriminated against African Americans was that they limited them to certain types of jobs. So for African Americans, not all, but many were messman or stewards. Dorie Miller was a messmen, which meant that he basically took care of an officer, laid out his clothes, shined his shoes and served meals.
PRICE: An official Navy commendation list of those whose actions during the attack stood out mentioned a Black sailor, but it didn't bother to name Miller, a 22-year-old sharecropper's son from Waco, Texas. The Black press, though, discovered and published Miller's name.
AKERS: And so the African American community just swells up with pride. But at the same time, they're mad at the Navy for not having formally shared what Dorie Miller did.
PRICE: Black leaders at the time were already pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt for more opportunities for African Americans in the booming war industry and in the military. Roosevelt barely averted a march on Washington at one point. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific fleet, wanted to take the bold step of awarding Miller the Navy Cross, then the third-highest honor for heroism. Again, Regina Akers.
AKERS: So in Nimitz's mind, the award would be good for the Navy and contradict the institutional racism that the Navy was known for.
PRICE: Roosevelt, eager to keep the nation united behind the war effort, agreed. Miller's heroism was all but ignored by white America. But in the Black community...
AKERS: Miller, I mean, in just, like, the flip of a switch becomes a celebrity. He becomes one of the first heroes - period - of the war but certainly one of the first African American heroes of the war. He was on recruitment posters. His image was everywhere.
PRICE: And in Miller, suddenly the Black newspapers had a weapon they'd been looking for.
MICHAEL PARRISH: He was a catalyst that gave them a lot of strength very early in the war, and they were determined to promote him publicly.
PRICE: Baylor University history professor Michael Parrish as co-author of "Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, And The Birth Of The Civil Rights Movement." He says that in war after war, African Americans had fought for their country, hoping their service would be rewarded with more rights, then had their hopes dashed until Miller stepped behind that gun.
PARRISH: Things came together at Pearl Harbor for Doris Miller and for the civil rights movement probably to maximum effect. So World War II was really the turning point in that long struggle.
PRICE: Even before he got the medal, the Navy began training Black sailors for jobs like gunner's mate, radioman, radar operator. Later, it began commissioning Black officers. Finally, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military desegregated. All of that, Parrish says, can be traced to Dorie Miller. The decision to name the new supercarrier for Miller was made by Thomas Modly, who was acting secretary of the Navy until April.
THOMAS MODLY: I think it was probably long overdue.
PRICE: Modly says it simply seemed like the right thing to do, given the U.S. Navy's diversity.
MODLY: The Navy is made up of every single element of our population. It's probably the most diverse representation of the country. We have about 340,000 active duty sailors, and they come from every part of the country, every skin color, every ethnicity.
PRICE: Miller didn't live to see the biggest effects of his heroics. He went back to sea in the Pacific, and in 1943, his ship was torpedoed and sank; 644 men died. Miller's body was never found. His name, though, still graces schools, roads and community centers around the country. And the Navy that at first wouldn't even share that name will soon give it equal footing with the names of presidents. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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