By Maj. Gen. Jerry R. Curry, US Army (Ret.)
One evening my mother and father gathered us six children together for a family discussion of race relations in America and how to succeed in spite of white people. We had these kinds of family discussions about half a dozen times a year.
My father began this way, “In America white people make the rules, and define mainstream values and acceptable codes of conduct. As a minority if you work hard and cooperate with them, they will encourage you to think that you will get a fair shake. But sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t. As a minority you will always be treated a little differently.”
“Remember,” My mother added, “white people are not all the same. Some white people mean you well and will give you a fair deal. Others won’t. So look out when you approach the goal line. At the last minute it may get yanked back or moved off to one side. Or you will find that some new obstacle or qualification has been added to prevent you from breaking the winners tape. If you are unable to work your way through such changes, you are doomed to live on the fringes of economic failure or be condemned to accepting permanent underclass status.”
My father added, “Life in this country hasn’t seen fit to be fair to your mother and me so don’t think it’s going to be fair to you. Race isn’t just a handicap, it is also a challenge. In this system those who stand around waiting for handouts or think of themselves simply as victims will always be losers. Each of us has to stand on our own two feet and take responsibility for our own actions. Those who believe the government owes them something or that government will take care of them are in for a rude surprise.”
“To be successful is to deal with life as it is, not as you wish it to be. While we are free to historically talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are not and should not be free from the responsibilities and penalties that come with the pursuit of a successful life.”
Years later I remembered his summation when I enlisted in the U.S. Army as a Private in March, 1951, to fight in the Korean War. I discovered the Army was double-minded when it came to the subject of race. Every soldier was expected to succeed, but colored soldiers were not supposed to succeed too much.
I was also amazed by the Army’ schizophrenic preoccupation with race. First came an integrated train ride from Pittsburg to Louisville, KY; then came a segregated in-processing procedure at Fort Knox followed by integrated basic training. This was followed by an integrated ocean crossing to Europe on a WWII Liberty ship; next came a segregated in-processing in Munich, Germany followed by assignment to the all Negro 373d Armored Infantry Battalion, Constabulary.
Years later I repeated that same ocean crossing. This time it was on a jetliner accompanied by a wife and three children. In the briefcase beneath my seat was a document from the Pentagon called a Command Letter. It said, “Recommend that Lt. Colonel Curry be given command of a battalion during his three year tour of duty in West Germany.” Lt. Colonels who failed to command seldom were promoted to full colonel and never to general.
My new assignment was as a staff officer in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation Operations in Heidelberg, Germany. I was the only minority officer in the office. One day on an inspection visit I ran into Lt. Colonel John McCleod a minority officer who worked at corps headquarters in Stuttgart. He said, “Unknown to you, Jerry, one of your white classmates at the Command and General staff College from which you just graduated wrote the Corps Aviation Officer a letter and said many glowing things about you and recommended that you be assigned to his headquarters.
“One of my jobs was to review the files of all officers newly recommended for positions at corps headquarters. But in this case somehow I just happened to be bypassed. Notice the document concludes that you are unqualified for the job. But at the same time a totally unqualified white officer is falsely declared qualified and given the job.
“This blatant racism infuriated me so much that I pulled a few strings of my own. I went to your boss in Heidelberg and told him the story and asked him to fix it. I used to work for him and saved his ass on a few occasions. He owed me. Not a pretty story, but that’s how you got your job.”
“John, are you telling me that for the rest of my military career there will be hidden nuances, secret and dishonest memos, code words and all sorts of plots hatched against me just because of my race and my success?”
“You can count on it. This time they got caught, but the next time you may not be as lucky as to have a white friend write a letter of recommendation and by coincidence have a minority friend discover a plot against you.” I was grateful and more than profuse in thanking John. Then things got worse.
Back in Heidelberg I took my Command Letter to the personnel office and said, “Soon my eighteen months serving on staff will be up. What battalion will I be commanding?”
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to phone you for some time. Due to circumstances beyond my control, battalion command assignments have filled up for the next two years. Maybe when you return back to the States someone there will be able to find you a battalion to command.”
I later discovered that officers who had arrived in Germany long after me had been advanced on the command list ahead of me. Then, serendipitously, I was ordered back to the Pentagon for two weeks to work on a war planning study group. I wrote the Infantry Officer Personnel Assignments Branch and requested an appointment to discuss my career.
The Assignments Officer tried a bureaucratic stall on me but I wasn’t in the mood. “Either level with me or you are going to witness a performance that will blow the roof off this building. People will leave their offices and stand in the hall just to hear what is going on.”
“OK, come with me,” he finally said.
I followed him to a back office where he turned me over to Lt. Colonel Tom Tait. Tom listened to my story without comment, about how an average career had caught fire in the last several years. He leafed through my personnel file, leaned back in his chair and quietly asked, “Jerry, Who should I select to attend the prestigious Army War College? An officer like you who had only average ratings the first ten years of his military service, or someone who has had outstanding ratings since the day he graduated from West Point?”
I’ve gotten the message, Tom . . . is there any hope for me?”
“Yes, but it’s very slim. You have serious problems to overcome and, by the way, this conversation never took place. First, you are a minority. Don’t ever underestimate the weight of that accident of birth. It will always color your Army career, no pun intended.”
“No offense taken.”
“Second, you are an ex-enlisted man. We in Army personnel don’t think your ‘kind’ have much potential compared to a West Point or ROTC graduate. Third, you received your college degree by going to night school. Personally I’m quite impressed. But the Army personnel system doesn’t look upon that as a very legitimate way to get a college education. I don’t want you to walk out of here thinking that if you just work hard and do well, everything is going to be fine, it’s not.”
Next page please…
“You have my undivided attention . . . what do you recommend?”
Slowly, deliberately Tom laid out my options. “In my opinion, and I want to stress that I’m not speaking for the Army, even if you execute what I recommend flawlessly, it may not work. I think there are two things you have to do simultaneously.”
“When you were going to night school at your own expense earning an undergraduate degree, your peers were going to graduate school getting masters or doctorates at government expense. While you weren’t looking we moved the goal posts.” He frowned, “Sure you want to hear the rest of this?”
I nodded trying not to betray my emotions.
“In order to successfully compete for the top jobs in the Army you need to go back to night school and get a master’s degree . . . at your own expense.”
“I’m tired of working for the Army all day and going to school at night,” I complained.
“You asked for my unbiased opinion and I gave it. What you decide to do with it is your choice. I’m not in the sympathy business. As for your more immediate problem, there is probably a zero chance that you can pull it off.
“When you get back to Germany locate a division commander who is willing to ask for you to be assigned to a battalion in his division, by name. If you can find one and he asks for you, Army Headquarters in Heidelberg will disapprove the request. Why, because the personnel types in Heidelberg are taking care of their buddies. But if the request somehow sneaks pass their road block and to the Department of the Army here in the Pentagon, we will override their veto and approve your assignment.”
Back in Germany I followed Tait’s advice and kept my focus on the goal line. Major General George P. Seneff, a white division commander, asked for me by name. I went back to night school and earned a master’s degree in International Relations and Foreign Affairs at Boston University’s overseas campus. In 1975 I was selected to be promoted to Brigadier General.
Years later a general walked up to me in the officer’s club and asked if I’d like to hear the story of how I got selected to be promoted to general. He told me, “It was the end of the Vietnam War and the Secretary of the Army wrote a letter of instruction to the general officer selection board that was meeting saying that the number one selection criterion was successful leadership in combat.”
“I came across a personnel evaluation report written on you that caused me to stop the board’s deliberations so I could read it out loud to everyone. It said, ‘Had it not been for the personal actions of Lt. Colonel Curry we would have lost the battle.’ I think he is one of the people we are looking for.”
I could never have worked my way up through the ranks from Private to General as I did without the help and guidance I received from a lot of white officers. They were determined to see me get a fair shake in spite of my race.
Today minorities sometimes still get the short end of the stick because of race. But for the most part, most of the time, racism is dead and buried. What we need is for our leaders to acknowledge that and to lead our nation forward into the bright sunlight of a new day.
Jerry Curry is a retired Army Major General, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration; Acting Press Secretary to the Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration; and Administrator of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration in the Bush Sr. administration.