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A coalition of current and retired servicemembers renew their push to rename the USS John C. Stennis

Contractor works on the USS John C. Stennis. Aug. 07, 2023.
Contractor works on the USS John C. Stennis. Aug. 07, 2023.

When the USS Stennis leaves the Newport News shipyard late next year to start the second half of its 50-year-life, Rueben Keith Green, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, wants the ship to leave the yard with a new name. 

In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Green wrote a widely circulated essay that called on the Navy to rename the carrier. The Stennis is nicknamed “Johnny Reb” and people like Green who want to see the name change say the Navy should not have overlooked John C. Stennis when the military removed Confederate names from ships and bases. 

Green worries that the Navy's commitment to look at racial disparities in the military has cooled since 2020. Retiring the Stennis name would send a message, he said. 

“It's not this nebulous, overall widespread discrimination. It is having to serve on a ship named for a racist and a segregationist. And that's something the Navy can do something about,” Green said. 

John C. Stennis was the longest-serving U.S. senator from Mississippi. In office from 1947 to 1989, he earned the title father of the modern Navy for fighting to fund nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. 

Stennis was also an ardent segregationist, voting against everything from the Voting Rights Act to creating a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Critics have also dug into how Stennis also fought to keep the Navy segregated after President Harry Truman ordered integration in 1948. John Cordle, a retired captain who still works for the Navy in Hampton Roads, has been leading the research. 

“We found letters talking about, “I support 100% white units,’” Cordle said. “Well, you know, what would that look like if we applied that mentality to the Navy today? You'd have a ship that was not integrated. Right, or you have the berthing compartment segregated.”

Cordle searched through Stennis’ archives housed at Mississippi State University. In a 1955 letter to a constituent, Stennis wrote, “In my years of service here I have constantly and continually stressed the very point you mention - that our boys have the chance to serve in all white units.”

The Navy still struggles with the low number of Black officers at the highest ranks. Congress plays a major role in sponsoring cadets to the Naval Academy. Until 1968, lawmakers from the 11 former Confederate states did not sponsor a single African American to any of the service academies, Cordle said. 

That unofficial ban included Virginia’s congressional delegation, said Leo Williams III, a retired Major General in the Marine Corps Reserve. 

“I graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1970 at which time, I became the first Black graduate from Virginia from the Naval Academy,” he said. 

Williams grew up in Norfolk. He had been accepted to Yale, but by the late 1960s, recruiters from the Naval Academy began scouting his predominantly Black high school for the first time. 

“When you grow up in Norfolk, the Navy presence is everywhere,” he said.

He became interested in military service. 

“Well, I applied to both senators and to my congressional representative, all of which sent me letters saying that I was considered, but not selected. Now take it, I was the valedictorian of my Booker T. Washington graduating class, and that class was 550 graduates. So it was quite a disappointment,” he said.

One of Williams’ teachers put him in touch with U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs, Jr., of Detroit, who nominated him. 

The southern boycott impacted a generation of Black leaders, and Stennis was a major impediment to African Americans who wanted to attend the service academies, Williams said.

“He stood in the way of giving an opportunity to a huge potential number of folks who wanted to serve and were not given the opportunity simply because of his bigotry,” he said.

Calvin Hicks, Jr. was in the Navy and was on the Stennis’ maiden deployment when the ship left Norfolk in 1998. His family came to meet him when the ship arrived in San Diego. His grandfather served in the segregated Navy. His father saw Confederate flags flown in Vietnam. They were offered t-Shirts and hats with the Stennis name, but they recoiled, Hicks said.

“We're here to see you, but I can’t wear that t-Shirt or that hat, and I totally understood,” he said. “You know I was required to but they didn’t want to embrace any paraphernalia. They were like, yeah, you’re on it, but I’m not wearing anything with that man’s namesake on it.”

More than 6,000 people serve on an aircraft carrier at sea. A generation of sailors receive a sanitized version of what Stennis meant to the Navy, Hicks said.

As a sailor, Hicks received a booklet when he joined the crew, which outlined Stennis’ legislative accomplishments. There is no mention of his record of signing onto the 1956 Southern Manifesto, where southern lawmakers vowed to not allow the desegregation of public schools after the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“You have a ceremony now for Martin Luther King Day, but the namesake is a man who didn't want to see that holiday come to fruition,” Hicks said.

Renaming the Stennis came up in 2021, in the wake of a Congressional mandate to look at bases and monuments named honoring the confederacy.  Petty Officer Brian Su is serving on the Stennis while it is in the yard in Virginia and wants the carrier renamed.

“It would be disappointing if nothing happens, because certainly there are still people who care. And I don't think it's an insignificant amount of people,” he said.

During the initial publicity, Sue said there was a lot of talk on board that the Stennis would be renamed. He hasn’t heard the old nickname “Johnny Reb” and leadership often refers to crew as “Team 74” after the carrier’s official number, instead of its name. 

Green and Cordle are building a coalition of current and retired military to push the Navy to rename the carrier. After finishing a midlife refueling, the aircraft carrier will spend another 25 to 30 years in the fleet. 

“Doing this before the carrier leaves the shipyard in Newport News wouldn’t cost that much,” Cordle said. “It would really be a matter of paperwork, and it would mean a lot to future sailors.”

The ultimate decision to retire the Stennis name would be in the hands of the secretary of the Navy or Congress, Cordle said. 

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment about the Stennis’s name. 

The Navy announced in January that it has wrapped up its congressionally required commission to look at Confederate names after renaming 33 ships, buildings and streets that honored the Confederacy.

The Stennis is set to leave the Newport News shipyard in late 2025. 

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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