Black History Month preparedness profile: Julius Becton, first African-American FEMA director

From the White House to the Department of Transportation to Congress, black Americans hold prominent leadership positions throughout U.S. government. They’ve also played important roles in our nation’s preparedness.

As a tribute to Black History Month, which was observed in February, Get Ready is highlighting an African-American who held a key position in U.S. disaster readiness. From 1985-1989, Julius Becton Jr. served as the third director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, becoming the first African-American director of the agency.

Nearly 100 disasters were declared in the U.S. during Becton’s years in office, from hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons to flooding, mudslides and fires. But Becton was dealing with more than just weather emergencies as FEMA director.

Becton assumed office during troubled times for FEMA. The agency had come under investigation for misuse of funds, leading to the resignation of his predecessor. During his term, Becton was known for his dedication to restoring integrity to the agency. He also stressed the importance of preparing Americans for disasters and alerting them if there was a threat.

That readiness went beyond weather disasters. In testimony before Congress in 1988 on FEMA’s civil defense budget, Becton spoke about the role of government to assist and support Americans in the event of a nuclear attack. Becton’s testimony came just two years after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the Ukraine, which raised concerns about radiological threats.

“Governments must be able to remain in operation to warn their people, broadcast lifesaving information to them, direct operations such as rescue, firefighting and debris removal and communicate to higher levels to request help,” he said, stressing the importance of disaster warning systems.

Four major emergency management documents were signed during Becton’s term at FEMA, addressing emergency coordination, national security and nuclear power plant safety.

Becton has also been lauded for his work beyond FEMA. After his term at FEMA, he worked in education, including serving as superintendent of the Washington, D.C., public school system. For his almost 40 years of service in the U.S. Army, where he reached the rank of lieutenant general, he received the George C. Marshall Medal, the Association of the U.S. Army’s highest award. Ebony Magazine listed him as “One of the Most Influential Blacks in America” on several occasions.

Now retired, Becton’s work as a leader in U.S. preparedness and service to the nation are still remembered.

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