MoonDawg's Den: The First Black Marines

MoonDawg's Den

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The First Black Marines

As we near the end of Black History Month, I felt it important to mention the little-known story about the nation's first black Marines, thousands of whom served with honor and distinction in the Pacific Theater during WWII. They were known as the Men of Montford Point, which was their training ground in North Carolina (they were kept separate from the white Marines training at Camp Lejeune):

Despite the insults and the scrutiny they faced, the black troops scored as well as their white counterpoints in combat training. Of the 19,168 African-Americans who served in the Marine Corps during World War II, 12,738, went overseas in the defense battalions or combat support companies or as stewards.
Even more importantly, the executive decision to allow blacks to enlist in the Marines was a turning point in the history of civil rights:

Before Camp Montford Point was established, the blacks and whites in the United States armed forces had not been integrated. "But at the urging of his wife, Eleanor, and threatened by civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph with a march on Washington, on June 25, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802," said Carolyn Ferren, member of the Montford Point Marine Association. "It established the Fair Employment Practice Commission, which prohibited racial discrimination by any government agency. The integration of the Marine Corps marked the beginning of the end for officially sanctioned segregation in America."
While full integration of the U.S. military was still years away, the Men of Montford Point laid the groundwork for future advances. Imagine being the very first black recruit to report to a military training camp run by undoubtedly hostile officers and NCOs, as Howard P. Perry (photo) did in 1942. The bravery of Perry, and other men such as retired Gunnery Sgt. Reuben J. McNair, to defy bigotry and wear the uniform of a country that treated them as second-class citizens is still inspirational and moving:

With all the challenges of racism and intolerance the Marines of Montford Point faced, they never lost the determination and pride that it takes to earn the eagle, globe and anchor. "People have asked me why I would want to go to a place I wasn't wanted," said McNair. "Myself and other young black men in those days wanted to challenge the world and prove that we could do anything white people could do. I figured that the first place to show a change in the way black people were treated would be the military."
As it turned out, McNair was right - the military became the proving ground for demonstrating equality of the races. So take a moment today, and remember the Men of Montford Point.


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