I am often honored during June of each year by the opportunity to speak at graduation ceremonies. These remarks are among my favorite duties for I know just how much many of these graduates have been forced to overcome.
There are lessons for all of us in these annual rites of passage – the commendations to be earned by hard work, perseverance and the struggle for excellence. Yet, as I hasten to remind each graduating class, the diplomas they receive are not the end of their journey but only the beginning.
This is the meaning I take from the life of Lieutenant Commander Wesley A. Brown, who passed from this life on May 22 at the age of 85. A son both of Baltimore and of Washington, D.C., Lt. Cmdr. Brown was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949.
The midshipmen and women who are fortunate to study in Annapolis at a time of significant minority participation may not be fully aware of the deep prejudice and discrimination that afflicted our nation’s premier naval training institution for most of its history.
When Wesley Brown left Howard University to enter the academy in June of 1945, only five Black men had been admitted to Annapolis between the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and the beginning of World War II.
All five had been pushed out prior to graduation by the brutal hazing and discrimination that they were forced to endure. When New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., nominated Brown to the Naval Academy, there were some who, though hopeful, expected his fate to be the same.
Wesley Brown, however, was made of sterner stuff. Despite the taunting and hardships that he was forced to endure, he graduated in the top one-half of his class and excelled in track and field.
For the next 20 years, he applied his knowledge and talents as an engineer in naval posts throughout the world. If that were all that he accomplished, it would have been a distinguished carrier indeed.
Yet, that alone is not why I value Wesley Brown’s life so deeply. I do so because he never failed to counsel and support the midshipmen and women of color who followed him into the Academy’s ranks.
In no small measure due to Lt. Cmdr. Brown’s tireless efforts, the United States Naval Academy today is a place to which all young Americans can aspire to learn and serve.
As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently observed in his address to this year’s graduating class, “You are men and women from every state in the union and 12 foreign nations; rich and poor; secular and religious; black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian; straight and gay.”
In my role as a member of its Board of Visitors, I work with my colleagues to report to the president each year on the Naval Academy’s performance. We take pride in the reality that
fully 10 percent of the Class of 2015 is African American.
More than 22 percent are minorities overall. This diversity of talent and background – even more than the “Wesley Brown Field House” at the Academy that bears his name – is Lt. Cmdr. Brown’s most lasting legacy.
The man whom, through ignorance, some officers and midshipmen sought to drive from the academy came to exemplify the highest and best values that the Naval Academy seeks to instill.
This, I believe, will continue to be his greatest gift to the country that he so loved and served.
Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown serves as a role model for all of us, whatever our background or ethnic heritage may be. He utilized the struggles and suffering that he was forced to endure as a passport to helping others and, in so doing, he became not only a good and accomplished man, but a great one.
Each year, I keep his example in mind as my office considers the applications from other bright and dedicated young people who are seeking appointments to our nation’s service academies: whether Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard or Merchant Marine. We are looking to assist young people who understand that they serve themselves best who serve others.
So, if you know of such young persons, now entering their junior or senior years in high school, please share Lt. Cmdr. Brown’s life story with them and their families. Ask them to consider contacting my Special Assistant, Ms. Katie Malone, at 410-719-8777 for further information.
I think that Wesley Brown would be pleased if they do. He would tell them that it is a privilege to serve – a privilege that must be earned.