NEW YORK CITY --
The Commandant of the Marine Corps spoke to a mixture of service members and NAACP delegates July 14 at the NAACP’s 35th Annual Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Awards Dinner here.
“We have a checkered history of integration,” Gen. James T. Conway said in his typically blunt fashion. “We have not done as well as we should have.”
He was not here to pander, nor would he be a captive of his Corps’ history.
Complimenting the towering and decorated Marine general were a collection of equal opportunity representatives from Marine Corps’ units across the globe. Staff Sgt. Oscar Davis, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, Special Operations Training Group, administrative chief, came from Japan to the 100th NAACP National Convention.
As an equal opportunity advisor, Davis trains Marines on the importance of diversity through annual and quarterly classes.
“I’m from Mississippi, so you can only imagine some of the things I’ve heard,” said Davis.
He said he hasn’t had any complaints from Marines in Japan. One reason he suggests is the melting pot nature of the Marine Corps. Young men and women of all types go through one of two recruit depots and then get stationed at a handful of Marine bases. They’ve been moved far away from home and now live and work with a diverse group of Marines.
“The civilian world doesn’t allow you to do that,” said the 16-year Marine.
Prior to the commandant’s speech trailblazers from each service stood and were recognized, including a handful of Marines in attendance who trained at the black-only training base Montford Point, N.C.
“They met a door that was only half open, but those men proved themselves,” said the top Marine Corps general.
Conway presented to the audience the words of two former top Marines as proof of progress. The 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb said in 1941, "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.''
Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, Holcomb’s successor as commandant and witness to the accomplishments of the black Marines during the battle of Saipan in the South Pacific, quickly changed course. “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period,” he declared.
“Compare where we were in 1990, with 30 percent of our enlisted Marines were minorities and 23 percent of our E-9s, sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants. In 2009, we are about the same percent of minorities, but about 42 percent of our E-9s are minorities,” Conway explained, pointing out his own sergeant major as an example.
“Sgt. Maj. Kent is the third straight black Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps in a row,” he said to a round of applause.
From his seat in the middle of the dining room, the speech, the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, and the audience must have seemed a little surreal, but all Ernst Smith would let on was, “I think it’s appropriate.”
In 1942 Smith went to the black-only Marine training ground where, “it was rough, but it was what I wanted.” Rough seemed a kind word for a military that was still debating whether a black man had the right to serve in it.
Smith was overseas when Vandegrift became the 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps. He wasn’t sure exactly where he was at the time; he lists Iwo Jima, the Marshall Islands, and the Mariana Islands as possible locations. What he does remember is the words about black Marines.
“I was pleased to hear it,” said the World War II veteran.
More than 60 years after his service Smith was sitting next to what he once considered the impossible. His daughter, the youngest of 11 children, now serves as colonel in the Marine Corps.
“Oh Lord,” he said. “We never thought there would be any (black officers).”
Conway ended his remarks for the night with a proclamation about his Marines and the rest of the military.
“This is the greatest military since World War II. Less than one percent wears the uniform; they are our warrior class. They are the next greatest generation.”
He held out one personal observation which made this group of fighters better than their forefathers.
Conway told the story of being in Fallujah, Iraq one night when a helicopter carrying a badly injured Marine was landing at the base. The base hospital medics had run low on A positive blood and the staff called out for more to keep this Marine alive.
“There were men there from every color, every creed. They didn’t know the nature of the Marine on that table. He was just a Marine who needed A positive blood.”
Conway’s radio-announcer voice gave in to the emotion of his memory. He paused for a moment then forcefully finished his remarks.
“That’s a better military then we had in World War II.”