WASHINGTON — In the military, there have been countless promotion ceremonies this year, held on army bases, aircraft carriers and even, in one case, an escarpment overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
But on Saturday, there 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 only three four-star generals serving in the Marine Corps — the service’s senior leadership.
In an emotional ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington, Langley, whose next assignment will be to lead U.S. Africa Command, acknowledged the weight of his promotion. Before Saturday, the Marine Corps had never given four stars to anyone who was not a white man.
Referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order that desegregated the Marine Corps during World War II, Langley listed pioneering Black Marines who went before him. They included Frank E. Petersen Jr., the first Black man to become a Marine Corps general, and Ronald L. Bailey, the first Black man to command the 1st Marine Division. Both men topped out at lieutenant general.
Langley’s promotion has electrified Black Marines. On Thursday, a slew of them ambushed him when he appeared at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia to get new uniforms to take with him to Stuttgart, Germany, where Africa Command is based.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, sir,” Langley recalled one star-struck Black major saying. “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. They were part of an expeditionary warfare training class at Quantico that the Marine commandant, Gen. David H. Berger, visited Wednesday. Around 45 minutes into Berger’s talk to the class, Capt. Rousseau Saintilfort, 34, raised his hand. “How can I be there Saturday?” he asked.
“It didn’t click on me at first because everyone was asking questions about amphibious stuff and tactics, and he asked me about Saturday,” Berger said at the ceremony, to laughter.
Capt. Ibrahim Diallo, 31, who came up from Quantico with Saintilfort, said, “All these friends started messaging me, saying, ‘You’re going to be next.’”
“I don’t know if I’m going to stick around that long,” he said, “but just the fact that junior Marines can see this, they will see that no matter what background you come from, you can achieve in the Marine Corps as long as you perform.”
For the Marine Corps, the promotion of Langley is a step that has been a long time coming. Since the corps began admitting African American troops in 1942, the last military service to do so, fewer than 30 have obtained the rank of general. Not one had made it to the top four-star rank, an honor the Marines have bestowed on 73 white men.
Seven African Americans reached lieutenant general, or three stars. The rest have received one or two stars, a majority in areas from which the Marine Corps does not choose its senior leadership, like logistics, aviation and transport.
Langley, who oversaw Marine forces on the East Coast in his last posting, has commanded at every level, from platoon to regiment, during his 37-year career. He served in Afghanistan, Somalia and Okinawa, and he has also had several senior staff jobs at the Pentagon and at the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.