Memorial honors first barrier-breaking, black marines

Dedication of a memorial to the first black marines in Lejeune Memorial Gardens, N.C., is another step in the American military's long march toward equality.

Lisa Miller/City of Jacksonville/AP
Forty-five Montford Point marines are scheduled to attend the dedication of a monument for the first black marines, shown here in this September 2015 photo, in Jacksonville, N.C., Friday, at Lejeune Memorial Gardens.

The United States military has broken a new barrier in its long march toward equal recognition of its black service members.

On Friday at 9 a.m., the US Marines dedicated a $1.1 million memorial honoring the first black marines, the Montford Point Marines, at Lejeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, N.C. The memorial includes an anti-aircraft gun and a bronze statue of a Montford Point Marine.

The military has in many ways has been on the leading edge of America's integration story. President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1941 for blacks to be accepted for military jobs at a time when African-Americans were forced to use separate restrooms and drinking fountains. And in 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the military, six years before the US Supreme Court's landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in public schools. 

The dedication of the Montford Point memorial represents a significant symbolic milestone, however, after reports in recent years revealed lingering racism in the ranks and a shortfall of African-Americans in leadership roles.

Last year, an anonymous black marine told the media that an Alaska unit was at the time taking part in a what it called “racial Thursdays,” where troops were allowed or encouraged to make racial slurs, The Christian Science Monitor’s Anna Mulrine reported at the time.

There have also been reports and data that show a lack of diversity within the top echelons of the military and even a decline in the number of African-American service members.

“About 1 in 5 Army soldiers is African-American, according to figures provided by the US Army, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1995,” Ms. Mulrine wrote last year.

A 2011 report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission concluded that despite “undeniable successes, however, the Armed Forces have not yet succeeded in developing a continuing stream of leaders who are as diverse as the nation they serve.”

That's something the Pentagon is looking to change, Defense Departement spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said in a statement provided to the Monitor.

"Diversity is a source of strength for the Department of Defense, and is a key component to maintaining our highest state of readiness,” Mr. Christensen said. “Our force comes from a diverse [populace], and certainly our military is better served when it reflects the nation it serves.”

The road to a military reflective of the US population began with the Montford Point Marines, who received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012.

As 80-something year-old John Spencer, one of those 20,000 men to first work at the segregated Montford Point camp, told the Associated Press before attending the memorial dedication, black marines still had to prove their worth.

"I'll think about the trials and tribulations we went through to prove that we were good Americans and that we loved our country and were willing to fight for it," said Mr. Spencer, who in 1943 at age 15 lied about his age so he could enlist.

He said they received the same training as white marines, but instructors were harder on them. Though welcome to serve, black marines were not allowed to be on the "mainside" of the base and slept in huts instead of the barracks.

He added that the inclusion of black marines was considered an experiment, and "they didn't have any idea of keeping us in the Marine Corps."

"But before the war ended, they understood we were just as good or better as the present marines."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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