Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune --
After weathering the tides of racial segregation and war, theirs’ is a tradition of service continuing to shape the future of the Marine Corps.
Approximately 20,000 African-American recruits answered the nation’s call to arms, enlisted in the Marine Corps and passed through the training facilities at Montford Point during World War II. They set in motion a tide of change which continues to ripple through the Marine Corps.
“You can be one of those in a society in a day in history,” said Lt. Col. Tim Seamon, commanding officer of Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools as he addressed a group of Montford Point Marines gathered at Camp Johnson, formerly Montford Point. “You can also be one of those people who change history, one of those few who change history. Gentlemen, thank you from the bottom of my heart for changing history.”
The change was not just a matter of timing, but a challenge of wills. The first new recruits began training in 1942. Facing the same rigorous Marine Corps’ standards as their Caucasian counterparts in addition to the racial limitations society placed on them. The nearly 20,000 African-American Marines were carrying out a presidential order.
“It is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens,” wrote President Franklin Roosevelt June 25, 1941, in executive order 8802, which barred discrimination in the defense industry under the asserted belief that, “the democratic way of life within the nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders.”
Presidential orders did not, however, remove all barriers faced by the new recruits. In fact, integration was not finalized until President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948. Instead of training alongside counterparts, the newest addition to the Marine Corps’ ranks reported to Montford Point to train in all black units.
A fight from the start, the Montford Point Marines continued to face discrimination, but they also managed to create the initial breach in the wall of racism standing against their service. According to a 1959 Navy and Marine Corps military statistics report, a little more than 2 percent of the Marine Corps was African American by 1950. By 1955, well after some predicted they would be compelled out of the military, that unprecedented but relatively scant 2 percent climbed to 6.5 percent.
“Today’s generation of Marines serve in a fully-integrated Corps where blacks constitute almost one-fifth of our stength,” wrote Brig. Gen. Edwin Simmons, former director of Marine Corps History and Museums in his forward to a 1975 study on blacks in the military. “The fact that this was not always so and that as little as 34 years ago there were no black Marines deserves explanation.”
Simmons gave significant credit to the original World War II generation of African-American Marines who “earned a place for blacks in the Marine Corps.”
Marine Corps Community Services’ 2011 demographic update estimates more than 10 percent of the Marine Corps is African American.
The initial effort to integrate was not the last impact the Montford Point Marines had on the Marine Corps. In 1965, twenty years after the fires of World War II burned out, nearly 400 Montford Point Marines gathered to reconnect with their fellow veterans. The event formed the foundation of the Montford Point Marine Association, which convened in 1966.
Their commitment to the future is clearly voiced by their creed: 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.
Today, there are 36 chapters of the MPMA.
The organization and its chapters contribute to an association scholarship program, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation Program and various chapter scholarship programs to encourage continuing education.
Recently, nearly 400 Montford Point Marines gathered in Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation’s highest honors. While Montford Point closed its doors in 1949 when Truman called for the officially desegregation of the military, the memory of the Marines who trained there is still part of the fabric of the institution they served.
“They truly showed our core values of honor, courage and commitment as they served a nation divided along racial lines,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Gorry, commanding officer Marine Corps Installations East – Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. “Though a long time coming, the Montford Point Marines finally received the recognition they rightly deserve. Their proud service is finally woven into the fabric of our illustrious Corps.”
As part of their continuing efforts, the MPMA is working to complete a Montford Point Marines Memorial near the front gate of Camp Johnson, where there service first began. To learn more visit mpmamemorial.com.