425. Unrest in the Fleet

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Level: Hangar Deck

Read directions to Case 8A, “Changing Policies”


Racial violence surfaced on Intrepid and the Navy fleet in the early 1970s in response to persistent discrimination and lack of opportunity.

Video: Unrest in the Fleet

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For an audio-described version, use the video below

Collection Connection

Handwritten letter on cream-colored stationary. The letterhead reads “Commanding Officer United States Ship Intrepid” and begins “Dear Mr. Pistorino.”
Letter from Capt. Raymond Barker to the father of a sailor, March 26, 1973

Newspapers reported that USS Intrepid was one of a growing number of ships to experience racial violence in 1972–1973. These headlines reached the families of Intrepid’s crew members. This letter is a response from Intrepid’s captain to the parent of a sailor. The captain shares his perspective on the event. He acknowledges a need to improve race relations in the Navy, but he characterizes the incident as “unreasoned and illogical.”

The Intrepid Museum is actively seeking more artifacts, documents and oral histories related to this important moment in the ship’s history. The Museum is especially interested in hearing from Black sailors and other crew members who were directly involved in this event.

Collection of the Intrepid Museum. Gift of Thomas J. Pistorino in honor of my dad Anthony L. Pistorino, a WWII vet. A2018.99

Learn More: Racial Unrest onboard Intrepid

From October 1972 to August 1973, a series of racial uprisings wracked the U.S. Navy fleet, including onboard USS Intrepid. These incidents were the result of low morale, poor working conditions and years of unaddressed racism in the Navy.

At that time, the Navy had a reputation as the whitest branch of the military. Black sailors made up only 5.3% of the Navy’s enlisted force and a dismal 0.7% of officers. Black sailors reported discrimination in every area of Navy life, from promotional opportunities to discipline.

Intrepid’s episode of racial violence can be traced to unequal discipline. In January 1973, a white petty officer hit a Black airman. Fights in the division escalated. Some were incited by white sailors using racial slurs. Five Black men were sentenced to the brig (ship’s jail) for brawling. The white petty officer received no brig time.

The captain met repeatedly with agitated crew members, Black and white. He acknowledged their frustrations but would not alter his sentences. Command attempted to head off more disorder by removing alleged “ringleaders” from the ship. All the men removed were Black, with the exception of the white petty officer who hit his subordinate. When word of the removals spread, long-simmering resentments boiled over, and a few frustrated Black sailors began randomly attacking white shipmates.

The ship’s chaplains and officers worked to diffuse the violence. The captain deployed roving patrols of Marines and officers to keep crew in their berthing after curfew. Meanwhile, the ship remained fully operational. An uneasy peace settled on the ship.

In the coming months, Intrepid’s crew debated what happened in January and why. The diversity initiatives already in place on the ship continued. Like other older ships of its class, Intrepid was soon decommissioned, but the Navy’s efforts to grapple with discrimination continued.

For more about racial reform movements in the Navy, see Mobile Guide Stop 220: Reforming the Navy.

Sailors of color have a long history of speaking out against discrimination and unfair treatment. The nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked another round of discussion and review. The Navy established Task Force One Navy to identify barriers to inclusion and make recommendations for improvement.

The task force held roundtable discussions to hear how discrimination impacts service members. Navy personnel candidly discussed painful experiences with racism, sexism and homophobia. A Black officer’s peers at the Naval Academy heckled her for her hairstyle. A Hispanic officer described being berated for speaking Spanish. Multiple service members described an overall lack of awareness about the barriers that people of color face at all levels of the Navy.

Task Force One Navy released its final report in 2021. Recommendations range from removing barriers to enlistment to creating a pilot mentorship program to reviewing the disciplinary process. It is too early to tell if the report will have a significant impact on diversity and inclusion in the Navy.


Inclusive Histories on Historic Naval Ships has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.
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