First in class

You may have read about the recent death of Lieutenant Commander Wesley A. Brown, who in 1949 became the first black midshipman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. Other blacks had tried—my wife’s grandfather, who was at Annapolis in the 1880s, received a letter in which his mother urged him to be nice to the one black midshipman in his class—but all had fallen victim to the bigotry that was so powerful in those days. Brown himself endured “racial epithets and ostracism from his classmates,” according to the Washington Post’s obituary. “A group of upperclassmen gave him so many demerits during his first term, mostly for fabricated actions or petty offenses, that he was threatened with expulsion.”

It was bad enough that when he was later asked if he had thought about quitting, his answer was: “Every day.” Sticking it out was made easier by the midshipmen who rallied around him, encouraging him with their friendship. Among them, improbably, was a young man from rural Georgia whose background would have given him every excuse to join in the prevailing prejudice. His name was Jimmy Carter.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.