Long-overdue honors for first black Marines

Posted July 08, 2012, at 6:02 p.m.

Some of the young Marines attending a leadership seminar at Cleveland State University during Marine Week last month walked right by two generals to shake hands with a different kind of VIP.

This Marine — later identified by others at the seminar as retired Master Gunnery Sgt. J.C. Cunningham of Euclid — was no ordinary Marine. He was one of the first African-American Marines, a Montford Point Marine, who enlisted in June 1944 when America needed the patriotic service of its black citizens just as much as its white ones — but when its armed forces were still segregated.

Those first black Marines were sent to swampy Montford Point, N.C. — near to, but a world apart from, Camp Lejeune, where white Marines trained. Before braving the enemy, they had to brave vermin and inadequate food. Then many went on to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other World War II battlefields. On Wednesday, nearly 400 of the estimated 420 still living turned out in Washington for a long-overdue awarding of a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the Montford Point Marines’ determination to serve and to break down the color barrier. Cunningham, according to a civilian Marine employee who encountered him there, was among those in attendance.

Other local Montford Point Marines include prominent Cleveland lawyer James R. Willis and Herman R. Douthard, also of Cleveland.

“They not only helped defeat tyranny overseas; they thoroughly discredited a poisonous philosophy deeply held and long defended by elites here at home,” said House Speaker John Boehner at Wednesday’s ceremony. Cunningham, Willis and Douthard need to get ready for more handshakes and photographs. They’ve earned them.

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland (July 4)

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