United States Military Academy graduating cadets queue to present themselves on stage as their names are called
United States Military Academy graduating cadets queue to present themselves on stage as their names are called during commencement ceremonies, June 13, 2020, in West Point, N.Y.

PENTAGON - With race relations front and center in the United States, U.S. military service branches have begun taking steps to make their organizations more inclusive. 

In an effort to reduce implicit bias, the Army will no longer use soldiers' photos when they are being considered for promotions. The Army is considering redacting the box on its promotion form that identifies race, much like it already does with the boxes identifying religion and marital status. 

In June, the Marine Corps ordered the removal of all public displays of the Confederate battle flag, which is viewed by many as a symbol of racism. The order includes displays on items such as mugs, bumper stickers and posters. 

FILE - Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The services are waiting for broader guidance from Defense Secretary Mark Esper on some decisions, including whether to change the titles of bases named for Confederate generals.  

In a message to the force on June 18, Esper shared his "pride" in the U.S. military, which he said "embraces diversity and inclusion, and rejects hate, bigotry, and unlawful discrimination in all forms."  

"More often than not, we have led on these issues. However, we are not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice — whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious," Esper said, vowing to take steps to build a better, more equal military. 

Throughout history, the U.S. military has been primarily white and male. But today, it is increasingly becoming as diverse as the country it serves to protect. 

Charles Brown, Jr., nominated for reappointment to the grade of General and to Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Senate Armed Services nominations hearing, May 7, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Slow on diversity 

The military's top leadership has been slow to reflect the racial composition of the force it commands. 

For example, even though full integration was achieved in the 1950s, an African American service member did not rise to the rank of four-star, the military's highest ranking, until two decades later. And since Air Force Gen. Daniel James Jr.'s promotion on Sept. 1, 1975, only 20 of the military's 427 four-star generals and admirals have been African American. * 

"It's a big deal," former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said earlier this month on the lack of Black four-star officers. 

"I left some 8 ½ years ago, and I worry a great deal that we've regressed since that time, because the numbers just aren't there," he said.  

The Marine Corps and the Coast Guard have had no Black or female four-star generals. The Space Force, which was created last year, has only one four-star general, who is a white male. 

Major African American milestones range from June 1877, when the first African American graduated from West Point Military Academy and was commissioned as the first Black U.S. military officer, to this month, when Air Force Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown was confirmed by the Senate and became the first Black officer to serve as chief of a military service branch. 

Below is a VOA timeline of the U.S. military's landmark moments on the path toward greater racial equality and diversity. 


*The Coast Guard is considered a part of the military that operates under the Department of Homeland Security but can be transferred to the Navy during times of war. For that reason, VOA has included the composition of its generals in this article.