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Salute to the Montford Point Marines: Loyalty, Honor and Courage in the Face of RacismCoral Anika Theill, Contributor Salem-News.com
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(QUANTICO, Va.) - The Montford Point Marines are often honored as important figures and role models in American history because they willingly fought to protect a nation that still did not offer them basic civil rights.
African-American men were willing to give their lives for their country at a time when they were still subjected to lynching, terror and racism, in their communities, without the protection of our government.
The Montford Point Marines helped to integrate the armed forces and encourage respect for African-American men and women in the armed forces. The men of Montford Point made it impossible for the Marine Corps to return to its prewar policy.
The battle that took place from 1939 to 1945 for world freedom has been referred to as America's war. But while American troops fought the horror of World War II, the Montford Point Marines fought a second battle - one for equal treatment.
Today's Marine Corps, like the Army, Air Force & Navy, is fully integrated, but for generations, the Marines did not admit African-Americans. The integration of the American military was a long process that started in 1941.
The Marine Corps today contains many successful African-American members and leaders, who trace their lineage to the "Chosen Few," or the group known as the "Montford Pointers."
The early days of WWII were tough and dark for African-Americans wanting to join the Marine Corps. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune understood these problems.
Mary McLeod Bethune gained national recognition in 1936 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, making her the first African-American woman to become a federal agency head.
During her eight years of service she supervised the expansion of employment opportunities and recreational facilities for African American youth throughout the United States. She also served as special assistant to the secretary of war during World War II.
Bethune had an agenda. She wanted to see African-Americans fully integrated into American life. "Our people will never be satisfied until we see black faces in high places," was one of her famous quotes.
Through her government assignments, Mary McLeod Bethune and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became close friends. They worked together in the struggle for racial justice and gender equality.
The United States had not yet become involved in the horror gripping Europe and the Pacific, but the times were tense. It was against this backdrop, at the urging of his wife, Eleanor, and threatened by President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph with a march on Washington, that on June 25th, 1941, President Roosevelt signed executive order 8802 establishing the Fair Employment Practice Commission
The order banned racial discrimination in any defense industry receiving federal contracts. Order 8802 declared: "There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin."
The order also empowered the FEPC to investigate complaints and take action against alleged employment discrimination.
The order was unpopular at the Marine Corps Headquarters. Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb, in testimony before the General Board of the Navy on January 23, 1942, indicated that it had long been his considered opinion that "there would be a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negroes."
Commandant Holcomb once publicly stated to officials that given the choice between having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 500,000 blacks he would much rather have the whites. Despite the Commandant's private protests, the pressure was on from the White House and from other public sources to proceed with the enlistment of blacks for general duty in the Navy and Marine Corps.
On April 7, 1942, Sec. of the Navy Frank Knox announced that the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps would soon allow African-Americans to enlist. Later they specified that 900 African-American recruits would become members of the 51st Composite Defense Battalion.
Brig. General Keller E. Rockey, Director of Plans and Policy for Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, also recommended that African-Americans be assigned to composite defense battalions. (The battalions that included a company of infantry bore the title "composite.")
In 1942, Montford Point Camp was established so that African-American Marine recruits could begin training.
A Call to Practice Democracy in the USA
Republican Presidential nominee, Wendell L. Willkie, delivered a speech at the Freedom House inaugural dinner on March 19, 1942.
He described the Navy's "racial bias" in excluding blacks from enlisting except as mess attendants as a "mockery." He challenged, "Are we always as alert to practice democracy here at home as we are to proclaim it abroad?"
Willkie also went on national radio to criticize Republicans and Democrats for ignoring "the Negro question." To illustrate the similarity between racism and Fascism, he said, "The desire to deprive some of our citizens of their rights — economic, civic or political — has the same basic motivation as actuates the Fascist mind when it seeks to dominate whole peoples and nations. It is essential that we eliminate it at home as well as abroad."
He is well known for his quote, "Those who rejoice in denying justice to one they hate, pave the way to a denial of justice for someone they love."
African-Americans Face Racism and Prejudice Recruiting for the "Montford Marines" began on June 1, 1942. Thousands of African-American men, eager to serve, flocked to recruiting offices. The African American recruits from all over the USA were not sent to the traditional boot camps of Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California. They were segregated - undergoing basic training at Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Both the service record book and the enlistment contract were stamped "COLORED." The African-American recruits who had college degrees, or had been doctors or lawyers before enlisting, were all given the rank of "private."
These barracks, called quonset huts, located at Montford Point, housed all black Marines that joined the Marine Corps in 1942.
While tensions grew overseas, the Montford Points Marines continued to endure being treated as inferior to white Marines. Many Montford Point Marines felt the unfair treatment wasn't so much on the part of the Corps as it was from the citizens outside. Local business owners took the Montford Point Marines' money for providing services, but treated them as second-class citizens. Some Montford Point Marines were denied service in restaurants because of their skin color even though they stood ready to defend their country in battle.
Montford Point Marines were arrested and charged with impersonating a Marine, as police officers had never seen an African-American Marine. Montford Point Marine recruits were subject to the Jim Crow Laws that were in effect from 1876-1965. While traveling to Camp Lejeune by train, they were segregated and often could not purchase food and beverage.
While they were on leave, the Jim Crow bus line in the South made it difficult for the Montford Point Marines to travel. Bus drivers gave priority to white passengers, as state law required, which left the black Marines without transportation as their deadline for return to the camp drew near.
Col. Samuel L.Woods took steps to ensure that black Marines could return safely to Camp Lejeune by assigning his own motor transport to pick up the Montford Point Marines in Jacksonville, N.C.
By mid 1943, all drill instructors and all NCOs at Montford Point were black. Veterans said many of the black drill instructors were meaner than the whites. Boot camp was tough; boot camp for black Marines was tougher. Approximately, twenty thousand African-American men trained at the camp.
The African-Americans who reported for training at Montford Point were prepared to fight and die for their country. They endured many indignities to arrive at their ultimate goal — to become a U.S. Marine. In the beginning, the Marines Corps was so ridden with racism that at times it was hard to determine whether the Corps was more at war with itself or with the enemy overseas.
Because they were assigned to depot and ammo companies, the Montford Point Marine recruits were given manual labor jobs, such as transporters for motor vehicles, ammunition carriers, stewards in dining facilities and supply ship loaders and unloaders.
51st and 52nd Defense Battalions
The 51st and 52nd Defense Battalion (1942-1946) were the first two defense battalions commanded by white officers, but organized from among African-American Marines who had trained at Montford Point.
The Montford Point Marines trained hard, had a strong sense of loyalty and honor and was eager to prove they were ready to fight. They fought for a country that had yet to recognize them as equal, or good enough. The Montford Point Marines saw actions and service on the Marianas Islands, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Japan, and China.
After hearing of the heroism of the black enlisted men, Lt. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commandant of the Marine Corps, announced, "The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period."
On the battlefield, black and white Marines fought together for a common cause without the need for segregation. When the troops returned to America, the military felt the need to enforce the segregation rules. The lessons the Marines had taught each other on the battlefield would become the seeds of change, in the pre civil rights era, which would begin to transform our society.
It is through the first-hand experiences, side-by-side, in war that black and white Marines became Marines. The conditions of war forced men to look at their similarities instead of their differences. They were Americans first, fighting for their country.
The structure of the military is a great equalizer and teaches people to rely on each other for survival. When you depend upon someone else for your life, you forget about color, race and religion. All you can remember is that they were there for you and they saved your life.
When you have been through hell and back you think about a man's character, not his skin color. These are the conditions that are missing in the "civilian life experience."
The Montford Point Marines contributions began to earn the respect of many. This respect had to be made known to the American society. Sadly, there were not enough main stream publications that reported on the courage and bravery of the black Marines. Even now, not enough is known about the heroic actions of these men.
Many of the Marines that served together in the war went back to the states as changed men. War is hell, but from hell the transformation that was needed in America began. The military was the first institution to become completely integrated. In time, civilian institutions began to follow their example.
Dedication of Iwo Jima Cemetery
At the dedication of the cemetery on Iwo Jima, Chaplain Roland B. Gittlesohn gave a sermon called “The Purest Democracy.” The words he spoke on those beaches should be remembered and lived by us all now. He said:
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor… together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews… together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.
The Montford Point Marines were diligent in their duties, they fought with courage, served honorably, and won the respect of those that served with them. The black Marines accomplished everything that was expected and asked of them. They helped to change history by demonstrating racial harmony on the chaotic beaches and battlefields all around the world. Many of the Montford Point Marines would help influence the Civil Rights Movement that was to come.
In 1940, there were no blacks in the Marine Corps, by 1945 there were 19,168 enlisted African-American men.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981. Just a little over seven years after President Roosevelt’s order to allow blacks into all services, this order ended segregation within the military.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
African-American Marine's Time Line
*In 1974, two years after Gilbert H. Johnson's death from a heart attack, the Montford Point facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, the first military installation to be named after an African-American. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_Johnson
Five African-American Marines have been awarded the Medal of Honor
Private 1st Class James Anderson, Jr., USMC, '67
Sgt. Rodney Maxwell Davis, USMC, '67
Private 1st Class Ralph Henry Johnson, USMC, '68
Private 1st Class Oscar Palmer Austin, USMC, '69
Private 1st Class Robert Henry Jenkins, USMC, '69
Honoring Ceremony at Henderson Hall: Preserving the legacy of the first African-Americans who served in the Marines
On April 10, 2010, the Washington D.C. Chapter of the Montford Point Marines honored 1st Sgt. George Kidd, 86, at a dinner and ceremony at Henderson Hall. Family, friends, and fellow Montford Point Marines joined in the celebration. He was wearing the same Marine Corps uniform he wore when he retired in 1973. 1stSgt. George Kidd served in the Marines for 30 years. His tours of duty include WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.
He was raised in the South where his family picked cotton for a living. "I had not completed my high school education when I joined the Marines. The Marine Corps was my salvation. In those days, we were thankful for food, shelter and boots." 1stSgt. Kidd's voice resonated with passion, "I was proud to be a Marine. The Marines squared me away, inspired me, taught me discipline, and educated me - made me rough and tough. I was a Marine's Marine. I would look at the book to see 'what does the book say.'" "Civilian life has been wonderful, too," he said. Although he excelled in every job after he retired from the Marines, he admitted he had a difficult time, at first, transitioning into civilian life. "I thought after being in the Marines, I could handle anything. At first I didn't 'fit in.' My employers asked if I could be more diplomatic," said 1stSgt. Kidd. "I answered them, 'I am not use to diplomacy. I am use to saying "go" and they would "go" not ask me how come and why? At first I was sort of rough on the civilians.'" He joked, "In the civilian world, I learned if I wanted to live I had better learn to take that Marine Corps edge off me or else they would take a contract out on me if I didn't learn."
The fact that African-Americans went through the rigorous training of Marines when it was segregated and while they were treated in a disparaging manner in our society, speaks loudly about the courage and dedication of each and every one of the Montford Point Marines. The Montford Point Marines wore their uniform with great pride and laid the foundation for many other black Marines to follow. The indignities they endured opened the doors to people like Sgt. Major Alford McMichael, USMC, Ret., Maj. Gen. Clifford Stanley, USMC, Ret., and Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, Jr., USMC, Ret. We must learn from our history, try and understand the pain and suffering the Montford Point Marines were willing to endure, and build a better framework for our future upon that foundation. The bonds of Marines can only be shattered if we fail to recognize the significance every Marine played in molding the Marine Corps future.
May we all continue to take the steps of change that were started on those beaches of hell, by black men and white men fighting to erase hate from the world as we know it… together.
Freedom is not free, but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share.
I wish to express my gratitude to Lt. Col. Joseph Carpenter, USMC Ret., Montford Point Marine 1943-1945, Beth Crumley, Reference Historian, History Division, Quantico, VA, 1st Sgt. George Kidd, Ret., Montford Point Marine, 1943-1949, Dr. Cladie R. Spears, SSgt. USMC Veteran, James Stewart, Jr. USMC Veteran and President MPMA 28, and MGySgt. William Wilber, USMC, Ret., for your support, encouragement and assistance in the realization of this article. It was a special privilege to meet several of the original Montford Point Marines this year. It is my hope that I will witness your Congressional Medal of Honor Award ceremony soon. Thank you, Montford Point Marines, for the tremendous courage you demonstrated through difficult and dark times. You are not forgotten. We salute you!
Montford Point Marine Association
The Montford Point Marine Association has 36 chapters all over the world, and is a member of the Marine Corps Council, which is a council of Marine-related service groups, is open to veterans and active members of all branches of the U. S. Armed Forces regardless of race, creed, or national origin.
The Association's stated creed is:
"To promote and preserve the strong bonds of friendship born from shared adversities and to devote ourselves to the furtherance of these accomplishments to ensure more peaceful times."
The purpose of the Association is to support educational assistance, veteran programs, and promotion of community services. The Association works to improve the social conditions of our veterans, local families, youth and the growing population of senior citizens.
The Montford Point Marine Association also consists of the Ladies Auxiliary. Membership in the Ladies Auxiliary is open to wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of members or former members of the United States Armed Forces.
Congressional Gold Medal and The National Montford Point Marine Monument Project
The Montford Point Marine Association is focusing on seeing two initiatives to their completion. These two projects are designed for the preservation of the legacy of the Original Montford Point Marines namely, The Congressional Gold Medal and The National Montford Point Marine Monument Project.
The Congressional Gold Medal is long past due. If the Senate and Congress do not approve Legislative Bill S1695 soon, they will miss the opportunity to meet and honor the original Montford Point Marines, the unsung heroes who have fought so passionately for this country.
Please call or write:
Sponsor of Bill S1695: Sen. Roland Burris, D-IL (202) 224-2854
"A nation that forgets its heroes is a nation destined to be forgotten."
2010 Montford Point Marine Association Convention and Formal Ball
The 45th National Montford Point Marine Association Convention 2010 and Formal Ball will be held in Fredericksburg at the Hospitality House & Conference Center from July 21-25th. Convention Information for montfordpointmarines.com
The theme for the 2010 convention is “PRESERVING THE LEGACY BY HONORING THE PAST AND CELEBRATING THE FUTURE."
Fredericksburg Hospitality House & Conference Center: 540 786.8321 800 682.1049 2801 Plank Road, Fredericksburg, VA 22401.
Everyone is welcome!
Formal Ball - July 24, 2010
For Tickets and information contact:
Nigel McKenzie (540) 845-2675, Quantico Chapter 32 President
Dr. Cladie R. Spears (540) 846-7270 Quantico Chapter 32 Ladies Auxiliary President
Lt. General Walter E. Gaskin, Sr., will be the honored guest speaker.
Walter E. Gaskin was confirmed by the United States Senate on Mar 19, 2010, and was promoted to Lieutenant General on March 22, 2010, making him only the fourth African-American in Marine Corps history to achieve three-star grade. Lieutenant General Gaskin has been appointed as the next Deputy Chairman, NATO Military Committee. Special entertainment for the Formal Ball will be provided by the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Team on July 24, 2010.
References, recommended reading and related websites:
Civil Rights Timeline:
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