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Servicemembers, current and retired, renew push to rename the USS John C. Stennis

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The USS John C. Stennis is named after a longtime Mississippi senator and segregationist. Nicknamed Johnny Reb, the aircraft carrier is undergoing maintenance in Virginia, where critics want it renamed. Here's Steve Walsh from member station WHRO.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Keith Green, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, has led the effort to rename the aircraft carrier.

KEITH GREEN: 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.

WALSH: John C. Stennis was the longest-serving senator from Mississippi. In office from 1947 to 1989, he earned the title father of the modern Navy, voting to approve nuclear aircraft carriers and subs. Stennis was also an ardent segregationist. He fought everything from the Voting Rights Act to creating a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Stennis also fought to keep the Navy segregated after President Harry Truman integrated the military in 1948. John Cordle is a retired captain.

JOHN CORDLE: We found letters talking about I support a 100% white units.

WALSH: Cordle found a 1955 letter responding to a constituent where Stennis says, in my years of service here, I have consistently and continually stressed the very point you mention - that our boys have the chance to serve in all-white units.

CORDLE: What would that look like if we applied that mentality to the Navy today? You'd have a ship that was not integrated.

WALSH: Cordle says the Navy still struggles with the lack 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. Retired Marine Major General Leo Williams III graduated from the Naval Academy in 1970.

LEO WILLIAMS III: At which time I became the first Black graduate from Virginia for the Naval Academy.

WALSH: He was born in Norfolk, but he sought out a congressman from Detroit after his application was rejected by Virginia's congressional delegation. He says Stennis held back a generation of Black leaders.

WILLIAMS: 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.

WALSH: Calvin Hicks, Jr. was on the Stennis' maiden deployment when it left Norfolk in 1998. His family met him pier side when the ship arrived in San Diego. His grandfather served in the segregated Navy. His father saw Confederate flags flown in Vietnam. When they were offered T-shirts and hats with the Stennis name, they recoiled.

CALVIN HICKS JR: We're here to see you, but I can't wear that T-shirt or that hat. And I totally understood it. You know, I was required to, but they were like, yeah, you're on it, but I'm not wearing anything with that man's namesake on it.

WALSH: Hicks says it's unfair that generations of sailors receive a sanitized version of what Stennis meant to the Navy. Renaming the Stennis came up in 2021 in the wake of a congressional mandate to look at bases and ships honoring the Confederacy. Brian Sue is serving on the Stennis while it's in the yard in Virginia. He wants to see the ship renamed.

BRIAN SUE: It would be disappointing if nothing happens of this, 'cause certainly there are still people who care.

WALSH: Sue hasn't heard the old nickname Johnny Reb. The Navy didn't comment on a possible name change. Next year, the Stennis is scheduled to leave the shipyard at Newport News for the second half of its 50-year life. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Walsh / WHRO