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  • Writer's pictureRyan

The USS John C. Stennis

I want to talk about the history of right-wing and white nationalist extremism in the military, and the ways that it presents itself today. Eventually I will do a series of posts addressing that, but I wanted to start by talking about a more subtle form of white supremacy. Over the past few weeks the Department of Defense has indicated not only a willingness but an intent to rename Army bases named after Confederate generals (an intent which the President quashed almost immediately). As Mike Pietrucha writes for War on the Rocks, this is largely a problem for the US Army, but the other branches should not be allowed to skate here.

If you ask me where I am from, I will tell you without any hesitation that I am from Knoxville, Tennessee. That is where my mom grew up, where my parents met, where I was born, and where I spent most of my summers. The real answer is complicated though, as it is for most military kids. My dad spent 22 years in the Air Force, and we did a lot of moving around, but we stayed in the south. I spent the bulk of my youth in a small town called Columbus in Mississippi where my dad did multiple tours as an instructor at Columbus Air Force Base. Columbus is a weird place. It is home to the first public college for women in the United States, it is the birthplace of the great Tennessee Williams, and it was home to what was at one point the largest toilet seat manufacturer in the country until a buyout and eventual bankruptcy left the company with what looks like only five employees on LinkedIn. You might have seen Columbus pop up in the news recently when a county supervisor made and later doubled down on some exceptionally racist statements after denying a motion to relocate a particularly egregious confederate monument from the grounds of the county courthouse. As with many towns in the antebellum south, the legacy of slavery and segregation is a constant presence in Columbus, but if you're a white kid that grew up there you probably didn't notice it.

A good example of that problem is the John C. Stennis Lock and Dam. The Lock and Dam, as locals generally refer to it, is one of the lock and dam systems along the Tombigbee River. It is accessible via a public park where I used to skateboard at the amphitheater, play basketball on the public courts, and was once taught how to break into cars by an elderly mennonite woman (that's a story for another day, but you'll need to buy me a beer for that premium content). I can't remember ever learning about Senator John C. Stennis in school, and I certainly never cared to look up why his name was attached to a lock and dam in northern Mississippi. I knew he must have been important, because I was vaguely aware of the Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The name also stuck out to me when I eventually enlisted in the Navy and kept coming across the name of the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), one of the Navy's 11 supercarriers. At first it struck me as a little bit cool that my little hometown had some tangential connection to one of the prized warships of the most powerful Navy in history. The connection seemed a lot less cool when I actually looked into who John C. Stennis was.

John Cornelius Stennis was a longtime US Senator from Mississippi. He was a lawyer and state legislator who eventually replaced the late Theodore Bilbo in the US Senate after Bilbo's death in 1947, and held that seat until his retirement in 1989. His career was largely what you'd expect from a conservative senator in that time period; he introduced an amendment to the Endangered Species Act that would give corporations the right to decide that their profits were more important than saving the endangered animals; he was mad that President Carter stopped American production of neutron bombs; and he fully backed the Reagan administration in giving millions of dollars to a brutal right wing terrorist organization in Nicaragua.

However, the biggest black eye on Stennis' legacy was his record on civil rights. He was an ardent segregationist, and opposed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He was the prosecutor in the case that was overturned in Brown v. Mississippi, and was found to have been fully aware that the confessions he had used as evidence had been given during interrogations which involved torture. His signature was on the Southern Manifesto, a document that declared the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision to be unconstitutional and vowing to do everything in the power of the signatories to overturn it. He even voted against making Martin Luther King Jr. day a holiday. [I will note though that Stennis did campaign for Mike Espy when he became the first black congressman from Mississippi since reconstruction, and who is currently running for US Senate and I highly encourage our readers, particularly those from Mississippi, to support him.]

The Navy has a long list of noteworthy sailors who deserve to have their names on ships, and while some effort has been made to recognize some important figures in the struggle for equality (The USNS Harvey Milk and USNS Cesar Chavez come to mind), it is a travesty and a shame that a segregationist like Stennis' name is on the hull of one of the gems of the US Navy.

If SecNav happens to find his way to this little blog post, might I suggest one of the members of the Golden Thirteen?


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