Imagine, if you will, trying to survive in a city in Georgia ranked ninth in the state for violent crimes during 2015. Now imagine, during 2015, trying to make it through high school and maintain your grades while avoiding the possibility of getting fatally wounded by an armed passerby. These were among the many circumstances Class of 2021 Cadet Markus Wright had to consider whenever he took a step outside his home in the dangerous parts of Columbus, Georgia.
“Throughout my four years of high school, I was losing friends to gang violence,” Wright said as he reflected on his journey as a young teenager avoiding the traps most teens, without proper guidance, would find themselves in.
Regardless of the negative traction Columbus receives on news outlets, the city still manages to produce individuals who, in the face of adversity, put honor and service to one’s country above all things. For Wright, he exemplified that virtue when he received the Flipper Award on Feb. 4 at the U.S. Military Academy.
The Flipper Award pays homage to Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877. During his tenure at West Point, Flipper battled through systemic racism that was blatantly apparent at the time.
Despite the overwhelming odds against him, Flipper managed to forge a path to success and became an Army officer.
Nevertheless, the success of gaining officership would eventually be met with controversy and the heavy hand of systemic racism. In 1881, Flipper was suspected of embezzling thousands of dollars in commissary funds. However, even with the dubious claim, a court-martial did not find him guilty. Despite being acquitted, he was dishonorably discharged in 1882 for “unbecoming conduct.”
While Flipper grappled with the machinations of systemic racism, Wright was faced with the gang violence and poverty that crippled his neighborhood.
“We have every gang from the Rollin’ Crips to the the Gangster Disciples — we also have Hells Angels in pockets of the community,” Sheriff Gregory Countryman said as he explained, throughout his 30 years of experience in law enforcement, how dangerous it can be in Columbus. “Just in Muskogee county jail we’ve been able to identify over 150 different gangs.”
Countryman met Wright when he was in the ninth grade at the Jordan Vocational High School. Since then, the two developed a close bond with Wright acknowledging Countryman as one of his mentors.
“My son introduced me to him and what I can tell you about Markus is that he’s determined, he is kind, he is very considerate and, not too long ago, he made it a point to come by the office and visit me when he was in (Columbus),” Countryman said. “I told him then, ‘I’m going to call you general because one day you are going to be pinned with the rank of a four star.’”
Despite Countryman’s praise, Wright said that he can never allow himself to become complacent due to the vital nature of his goal. Wright believes that in order for his community to evolve from the violence and poverty that consumes it, access to quality education is needed to shape the lives of the youths who attend Jordan Vocational High School. With more quality education, more opportunities are available for young teenagers, which means they are less likely to affiliate with gangs.
“I’m talking with my former guidance counselor Jana Rudd and Sheriff Countryman and we’re trying to work on the qualifications for setting up a scholarship and we’re also trying to form a committee to see who will be able to get the scholarship,” Wright said. “I’m trying to set up and find sponsors and convince them to (provide) scholarships for one male and one female every year.”
Wright’s commitment to help his community also stems from a tragic and personal event the occurred several years ago. He lost two of his best friends, Jowhan Armstead and R.J. Cummings, to gang violence while he was going through Cadet Basic Training.
“I played a lot of football with R.J. throughout high school and Jowhan and I have been best friends since elementary and middle school and I lost them, around the same time that basic training was going on, to gang violence,” Wright said. “It was especially hard because you’re going through basic training and you’re going through the experience and get the news that there are friends that you’ll never see and talk to again.”
Coupled with the impact of losing his best friends was hearing the news that his biological father had passed away last year.
“My biological dad passed away and even though he wasn’t really in my life, it still challenged me because it was something that was always on my mind — why didn’t we ever have that relationship,” Wright said.
These tragic moments throughout his journey at West Point strengthens his resolve and gives him the urgency he needs to see his goal all the way through to the end. With the support of his family, friends and key leaders of his community, he continues to push forward with raising funds for the scholarship.
“I look forward to working with (Wright) on funding this scholarship. Last night, I had dinner with Congressman Sanford Bishop of the Georgia Second Congressional District, and he says he is interested in working with Wright,” Countryman said. “I showed (Bishop) a picture of him receiving the Flipper Award and with him working in U.S. Congress for 20-plus years and seeing the lengths Wright is willing to reach to get the work done, he asked me to pass on his number to him so he can help out in any shape, form or fashion.”
Countryman also added he had lunch earlier during the week with the President of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Don DePerro, who took an interest in the scholarship fund. DePerro stated he would be reaching out to Wright in the near future to discuss plans for the scholarship.
“I bring Markus up to everybody that I can to get sources for funding and whenever he gets back here, he can tell his story to the students at the high school,” Countryman said. “I want people to get excited about Markus because we need to learn to celebrate our young people when they commit themselves to the community this way. We need to value our young people and let them know that they are valued.”
And so, the day had finally come when Wright was honored at West Point for overcoming personal obstacles. Cadets, West Point leadership and special guests flocked to Washington Hall to participate in the Flipper Dinner leading up to Wright receiving his award. During the ceremony, a video of Henry O. Flipper’s story was displayed on the screen followed by a performance from the West Point Gospel Choir.
Guest speaker and USMA Class of 1965 graduate Joseph B. Anderson said he was thrilled to return to West Point and speak on his experiences as a cadet and as an infantry officer during the Vietnam War. He also provided insight to Wright and the Corps of Cadets as they prepare to embark on their own personal journeys as officers.
“I’m excited about this ceremony because it’s giving me a chance to share with cadets how far things have progressed from my days here when there were only four African Americans and this year’s class has 212,” Anderson said. “I say this in the spirit of continued progression — seeing cadet Wright receiving the Flipper Award reinforces what I know — in that because of the developmental capacity of West Point, he and others will stick to it and get through anything and so, for me it’s no surprise he won the award. I’m very proud of him and proud to speak on his behalf at this award ceremony.”
After the award ceremony, Wright reflected on the anxiousness he felt leading up the event. During rehearsal, Class of 2021 Cadet Riley McGinnis advised him on how to comport himself during the ceremony, Wright said.
“As we started making our way to the Mess Hall, I started to feel the butterflies — I got nervous seeing everybody there — it was like playing at a football game again,” Wright said. “When it’s go time and the game is on, the butterflies go away. Once I got up to the table and took my seat, I started talking with the superintendent, Mr. Anderson, Riley and then it just all felt natural.”
The only thing that made receiving the award bittersweet for Wright was knowing his mother and stepfather wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremony. However, she was able to watch the live stream of the event and for Wright, it felt like his parents were there in spirit, he said.
“My mother is so proud — she cried throughout the ceremony. My stepdad was super proud and the most important thing I can ever do in regard to receiving the award is give my love and thanks to my parents,” Wright said. “My parents literally gave me everything. My mother struggled for so long to get me where I am today. My parents are the reason I’m here today and the reason that I’ve accomplished everything I’ve done at West Point and I just want add that this award is not just for me but for all the cadets and the people of Columbus who struggle through adversity.”