1st Black Marines: Fighting For The Right To Fight

In 1942, the first black recruits allowed in the Marines trained at a facility in North Carolina called Montford Point. They're being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. But at first, the U.S. didn't want them fighting. Host Michel Martin speaks with the head of the Montford Point Marines Association, and 90-year-old former Marine James Rudolf Carter.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll get the latest from the Latin Grammys. But first, we are going to hear more about a vital part of history, what some call the toughest job they ever loved. We're talking about serving the country in uniform. Of course, today is Veteran's Day, when this country takes a day to salute the men and women who have served in the military. And as we know, the military's been one of the institutions that's done a great deal to live up to the ideal of a country where the content of one's character and effort matter more than skin color. But it wasn't always that way.

In 1942, hundreds of black men went to the small Marine base known as Montford Point in North Carolina. They were the first batch of black recruits who were permitted to become Marines. They took part in some of the toughest military training known at the time in their effort to serve during World War II. It was part of a larger push to get blacks into the armed services by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the Marines, like the rest of the country, were still segregated.

To the dismay of most of most of the freshly minted black Marines, they would never get a chance to serve in combat roles, but they were still seen as trailblazers who helped lead the way to the complete desegregation of the armed services. And this week, lawmakers in the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to award the Montford Point Marines a Congressional Gold Medal. We wanted to know more about the Montford Point Marines and their contributions, so we've called upon James Rudolf Carter.

He trained at Montford Point and went on to become a first sergeant. Also joining the conversation is Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart. He's an active duty Marine and national president of the Montford Point Marines Association. We caught up with them earlier this week on Mr. Carter's 90th birthday, and I asked him how it would feel if he and his fellow Marines were awarded that Congressional Gold Medal.

JAMES RUDOLF CARTER: I'm telling you, I've been waiting a long time.

MARTIN: Why did you want to enlist to begin with, and why did you want to become a Marine?

CARTER: Well, I guess, to be truthful, I was always - you know, I had a lot of problems being sick and anemic in growing up, and I didn't participate in any organized sports because I was sick. And what - when I heard that you could join the Marines, and I was that age, I wanted to be the first Marine from my area, the first Marine in the Marine Corps. You know, I just wanted everything about the Marines because that golden anchor fascinated me.

MARTIN: Chief Warrant Officer Averhart, why don't you tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the Montford Point Marines?

CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER JAMES AVERHART: Well, the Montford Point Marines are the first African-American Marines who entered the United States Marine Corps during the periods of 1942 to 1949, during a time of racial divide and a diversity in our country. During the periods of 1942 to 1949, approximately 20,000 African-Americans trained at a segregated camp located in the rural areas of Jacksonville, North Carolina.

MARTIN: Well, what was the idea? Was the idea that these Marines would serve in combat roles, or they would serve in fighting positions? Or would it be a completely segregated force, that they would have black officers? Or was the idea that they would be led by white officers?

AVERHART: It was the idea that they would be led by white officers. It was only that they would be in a support role, not a combat role. These men had to fight for the right to fight during that timeframe. They wasn't allowed to fight in the combat area or the front lines, initially. When they first came in the Marine Corps, it was only to be an experiment.

MARTIN: And Mr. Carter, did you know that when you first enlisted? In fact, as I understand it, you really did have to fight even to get in. When you first tried to join, they first rejected your application, saying that you were knock-kneed and too short.

CARTER: Well, yes. They tried that, but it didn't work, because I was determined to be a Marine. I don't care what it took.

MARTIN: Did you know, though, that they weren't going to let you fight? It was your intention to go into combat, wasn't it?

CARTER: I wanted to go into combat. When I joined the Marines Corps, I never expected to come back home. It would have been a pleasure for me to give my life for the country, because I really wanted to be a first-class citizen, and that had been denied me all of my life, and I rejected it. I had to go to separate schools, and it was just a terrible thing to be living in such conditions that I knew were totally wrong and against everything that we believed in in the United States.

MARTIN: I understand the training was tough.

CARTER: It was tough all right, but when the blacks got in charge - like "Hashmark" Johnson and Huff - then it really got rough, because they could do things that the white trainers could not do to us. You know, the white trainers could jaw beat you and that type of thing. But when the blacks got in charge, they could actually brutalize you. They could kick you, and they had sidearms, and we didn't know they weren't loaded or anything. But in the effort to make us real Marines, in some cases, they overdid the thing.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, what was that about? I mean, do you think it was that whole you have to be twice as good to get half as far? You think that the black drill instructors thought they had something to prove by being extra tough?

CARTER: Oh, yes. Well, my instructor, Sergeant Major Huff, said that, you know, you may not make it, but the few that come out of here, they're going to be Marines. So they - they meant make us better than our counterpart. I found out very early that we were not welcome in the - to wear that golden anchor.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that, if you would. You're saying that even after you had earned your uniform and earned your stripes, that you were not fully accepted?

CARTER: No, because places I went, I was court-martialed because I crossed the street and took a shower across the street from us. And the sergeant came in and said: You can't do that. I said, why not? They said, well that's for staff NCO's, that's - I said, well, count 'em, I got six and a diamond. But he said, you can't still do it. He had me arrested. But we had complained about hot water in our latrine, and they would - we had sent in work orders, and they didn't fix it. So I took it upon myself - or we took it upon ourselves to just demonstrate what was going on.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. This week, lawmakers voted to award the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal. They were the first African-Americans permitted to join the Marines. With us to talk about all this is James Rudolf Carter. He is a Montford Point Marine. Also with us, Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart, the national president of the Montford Point Marine Association. Chief warrant officer, how did you get interested in this story? I do note that you've been in the Marines for some, what, 24 years now, if I have that...

AVERHART: Twenty-four years.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. How did you get interested in this?

AVERHART: Well, I actually became interested in the Montford Point Marines after Desert Shield, Desert Storm. I wasn't quite sure that I was going to stay in the Marine Corps, and my platoon sergeant at the time took me out to Camp Johnson, which was then, you know, Montford Point, later renamed to Camp Johnson. And I learned of the history of African-Americans. I had opportunity to visit the Montford Point Marines Museum there, located on Camp Johnson, and I was just amazed at the history.

I actually did not know that type of stuff existed in the Marine Corps, although I was from Alabama, you know. I didn't think that racism existed in the Marine Corps. And after I left - had the opportunity to leave Camp Johnson, I was taken to one of the actual heroes - Montford Point heroes. That was Sergeant Major Huff. And I had the opportunity to meet him personally in 1991. And I tell you, that changed my life again, after hearing the stories of African-Americans in the Marine Corps and all the adversity they had to deal with in the Marine Corps.

That was just something that I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to do more research on the African-Americans in the Marine Corps and just learn. And I felt that was an obligation then to continue to move forward, to progress, because these were pioneers. They were true heroes who paved the way for me.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Carter, now, all these years later, you fought so hard for the opportunity. You did make it. You did earn your stripes. Count them. You can count them. And did you feel it was worth it?

CARTER: Sure. I'm still fighting it. I'm active now and, every time I get a chance I'm challenging it, you know, because we're still not first class citizens here now. We still - there's a racial divide in this country, but we're making better strides and we're doing better.

I have dedicated my life to make sure things are better, because I fight racism every time I get a chance.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is there some wisdom you have to share? Is there something that you would like people listening to our conversation to learn from your story and to learn from the Montford Point Marines?

CARTER: Yes. Get involved in the political process. Make sure that you vote and take advantage of all these opportunities that are afforded us. And I'm all in favor of military training for all the young men, not that they have to stay in 30 years, but this is a good way to start off your early career, is by joining the military and enjoying a lot of the opportunities that are afforded to us because the military are the ones who are setting the pace to make the playing field equal. They're making more progress than anyplace else.

MARTIN: And what about you, Chief Warrant Officer Averhart? Is there something you think people should learn from this story?

AVERHART: Yes. I think people just should learn more so that racism is ignorance. You know, since 1775, the United States Marine Corps has served our country in peace and war and, even today, the Marine Corps still serves our nation as a force in readiness, prepared to serve whenever the nation, you know, requires us to.

And I just want to say that the Montford Point Marines Association is proud to be a striving part of the Marine Corps family and we will continue to honor courage and commitment to the United States Marine Corps. And I'd also like to wish the United States Marine Corps a happy birthday.

MARTIN: All right. James Rudolf Carter is one of the surviving Marines trained at Montford Point in North Carolina nearly 70 years ago. And Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart is an active duty Marine. He's also the national president of the Montford Point Marine Association, and I also might mention that he holds a doctorate in theological biblical studies.

And they were both kind enough to join us from Norfolk, Virginia. I want to thank you both so much for your service. I want to say happy Veterans Day and Semper Fi.

AVERHART: Semper Fi.

CARTER: Semper Fi to you.

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