Congressman Bill Keating presented Jesse James Jackson of Plymouth with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor for distinguished achievement, on Thursday, April 17. The ceremony recognized Mr. Jackson as one of almost 20,000 African-American United States Marines who trained at a segregated boot camp at Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, between 1941 and 1949. The medal is considered equal to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but it has been awarded far less often.
On June 23, 2012, Oak Bluffs resident C. J. “Cee Jay” Jones travelled to Washington to participate in a White House ceremony honoring the Montford Point Marines, and Sergeant Jackson read the account in the Martha’s Vineyard Times. He contacted the reporter who wrote The Times story to say that he was also a Montford Point Marine, but he had not been included in the Washington ceremony. With the reporter’s help, Mr. Jackson wrote President Obama, and the error was corrected.
The ceremony was held at the White Cliff Country Club in Plymouth. Mr. Jackson, tall and erect at 92, walked slowly through a tumult of applause to the front of the room, wearing a brand-new dress blue uniform and an enormous smile. The ceremony was attended by dozens of current Marines in dress uniforms, former Marines and other veterans, local politicians, and Mr. Jackson’s neighbors, friends and family.
During World War Two, the black Marines served with courage and distinction, and they were instrumental in the integration of the United States armed forces. Their military service also contributed materially to the civil rights movement, and many went on to become mayors, ambassadors, educators, lawyers, ministers, and doctors. Sergeant Jackson served in the Pacific theater and stateside. Honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946, Mr. Jackson went on to become a successful entrepreneur, owning a dozen businesses and some prime Boston real estate.
On June 29, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which forbade discrimination in the armed services. The prospect of the coming war meant that more soldiers, sailors, and marines would soon be needed, and one suspects that the President’s wife would have also supported this order as the right thing to do. However, 8802 did not end prejudice and segregation in the military. The Marines had to accept black recruits, but they didn’t have to treat them as equals. Montford Point, a part of the Marine training base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was set aside as a segregated boot camp for the new men.
There were no black officers or any plans to create them. Their barracks were little more than huts. The black recruits experienced discrimination and scorn, both on base and off. Black Marines were not allowed on the main base unless accompanied by a white Marine.
One commandant told the recruits, “I’d rather have 5,000 white marines than 250,000 black marines.” After two years at Montford Point, in his farewell address, he apologized for his initial bias. “You are the finest men I’ve ever served with,” he told them.
In the first two years, the drill instructors were white, charged with training black drill instructors. By the time Mr. Jones and Mr. Jackson arrived (in different years), they were trained by the new black drill instructors. According to the Montford Point Marine Association, the black drill instructors were tougher on the recruits than the white ones had been, because they wanted the men to prove they were as good soldiers as whites, or better. Both men told The Times that their Montford Point experience taught them the value of honor, loyalty, and especially perseverance. “Don’t ever give up. Give a little extra effort, and you’ll be surprised what you can do.” Lessons they carried through life.
For more information, visit The Montford Point Marine Association at montfordpointmarines.com. There is a very moving 54-minute video, narrated by Louis Gossage Jr., at montfordpointmarines.com/History.html.