By Robin S. BrownSeptember 16, 2008
He's 82 years young and his memory is as vivid as if boot camp in the segregated military was just last week. Melvin Shoats and his close friend, the Rev. John Baker Brown, 84, both served in the Marine Corps before, during and after the military was integrated.
As World War II threatened to engulf the United States, Congress belatedly passed the Selective Service and Training Act in August 1940 - the first peacetime draft. That law forbade discrimination on racial grounds. According to section 4(a) of the Act: "In the selection and training of men under this Act, and in the interpretation and execution of the provisions of this Act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race or color."
In June 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). The move was in support of the rights of African Americans. The president's order stated that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed or national origin. The FEPC enforced the order to ban discriminatory hiring within the federal government and in corporations that received federal contracts.
The Marine recruits were among the first blacks to join after Roosevelt's order.
Brown said he hadn't faced segregation before getting on the bus from Akron, Ohio, heading for boot camp in Jacksonville, N.C.
"When we reached Washington, D.C., we were moved to a Jim Crow car just behind the coal car," Brown explained, his arms folded and his eyes seemingly searching the ceiling as he reminisced on days gone by. Segregation was prevalent and harsh outside the gates of the Marine Barracks (later to be redesignated Camp Lejuene) in New River, N.C. Inside was a painful reminder of society as the black recruits were set "off to one corner" in a separate cantonment, the Montford Point Camp, in westernmost Camp Lejuene. Blacks felt they were truly unwelcome in the corps, said Shoats.
Shoats said the actions of white Marines were all too familiar, since he learned to deal with the racial attitudes of civilians in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.
"During the draft, they took everyone off the streets," Shoats said as he twists and turns in his seat, anxious to explain the makeup of those days. "Most figured if Uncle Sam couldn't use you, who could' Either way, it was volunteer or be drafted."
Brown volunteered for the Navy but there was no room. Recruiters had met their quota.
"The recruiters made it sound like Camp Lejuene was so beautiful," Shoats recalled, "but it was no peaches and cream."
While a recruit, Shoats says he felt pride in his new status as a servicemember. Days into processing, the drill instructor bused the recruits to a nearby restaurant, where the hungry young men anticipated a treat.
"We arrived at the restaurant awed and amazed at how nice it was," Shoats said as he mimicked the young black Marine recruits straightening their clothes, dusting of their shoes and fixing themselves up for presentation to the diners inside. "The drill instructor stepped inside and when he returned, he told us to 'go around back.' We weren't allowed in the front door. In the back we sat on bags of rice, not the nice tables like they had up front. Pulling up to the restaurant, we imagined we would eat from the menu and enjoy supper. It wasn't like that at all. We didn't get menus; we had to eat whatever was left over in the kitchen."
The Montford Point Camp consisted of the traditional post agencies, recreational facilities for the white enlisted men who initially staffed the operation and a barber shop.
Shoats said the barbers asked, "How you want it'" just before they slid the razors through the center of "your fresh 'do." Some of the guys wore the popular style of bangs and conks. The conk originated in the 1920s and was stylized by entertainer Cab Calloway. The style was an attempt by black males to straighten their hair to make it look like that of white men, and was accomplished by enduring a truly painstaking process of "relaxing" the hair with a solution dominated by lye.
The camp also boasted 120 green-painted, prefabricated huts, each capable of accommodating 16 recruits, though twice that number were sometimes jammed into them, pending the completion of new barracks for blacks. Shoats remembers, "We had to sleep on cots," unlike the whites who had framed mattresses.
Railroad tracks divided white residents from black in segregated Jacksonville. Suddenly, hundreds of black Marines on liberty appeared on the white side of the tracks looking for entertainment.
"Drivers gave priority to white passengers, as state law required, and restricted black passengers to the rear of the bus, unless whites needed the space," said Shoats. Since the two races formed separate lines at the bus stops, drivers tended to take only whites on board and leave the black Marines standing there. Brown, patiently waiting for a pause in Shoats' comments, chimed in, "Sometimes the bus would come around the corner already full. Those guys would make a bus stop elsewhere, fill it up and the driver wouldn't even stop.
"After a while, we would just take the bus and put the driver off. When we got done, we'd bring the bus back to just outside the base and get off."
Getting out of Jacksonville became easier, but returning to camp from the town proved difficult.
"We always had a curfew and the white Marines would take the bus back earlier than we needed to be there and we wouldn't have a way back," Brown, who served as a squad leader and sheet metal worker, explained. "We'd call the commander and let him know what was happening and he'd send a bus that resembled a cattle car to pick us up. Or sometimes the driver would drive slowly to make you late. It was crazy. Their jobs depended on our need for a driver but they would still be kicking [us] in the butt."
Some two dozen white officers and 90 white enlisted men directed the training, according to the Marine Corps History and Museums Division Web site. The command structure at Montford Point tried to identify the best of the black recruits and place them on a fast track to positions of responsibility in boot camp and in the 51st Defense Battalion. The first promotions, to private first class, came in November 1942, just before completing boot camp. The promotion of blacks depended on ability, as revealed by the initial classification tests, ratings from superiors, the results of formal examinations and the existence of vacancies that would not violate policy by placing a black in charge of whites. As the number of black Marines increased and training activity accelerated, some of the recently promoted privates first class, corporals and sergeants became assistant drill instructors at Montford Point, the Web site claims.
It was an upgrade for some, while others continued to do menial tasks and busy work, Brown stated. Discipline was considered key in keeping racial tension low.
Shoats explained, "It was things you had to put up with and you had to be disciplined - just do whatever you were supposed to do and don't ask a lot of questions."
Trying to hold their tongues didn't always work for the proud and self-confident black Marines who were willing to fight to protect a nation that still did not offer them basic civil rights.
Brown, a then-boisterous 145-pound-man, said he met a "big black man" early in his military service who warned him to keep his mouth shut. He questioned directions and events that seemed discriminatory or racial. "I didn't like stuff they were doing and always calling me a 'red so and so,'" he said.
Shoats described discrimination in the post exchange, away from the register and out of the way as they completed their purchases.
"After [white Marines] purchased their items, the cashier would call a few of us forward to select what we wanted. You couldn't make a fuss and when a white Marine would step up, we'd have to move again until he finished," Shoats said.
The duo said that after about 10 years, things began to turn around as black Marines garnered more leadership roles, some even over whites.
"The transition was so easy, you really couldn't see it," Shoats said.
Time, persistence to be accepted and proof of their ability to succeed would help write history for today's society.
(Editor's note: Part II of the Montford Point Marines' storyline will appear in the Aug. 22 issue of the Sentinel.)