NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana --
A hush fell over the audience of current and former Marines as two elderly men were seated in the center of the ballroom for all to see. Woodrow Arthur and Cleveland Williams, two of the few remaining original Montford Point Marines, were each presented the Congressional Gold Medal at the 49th annual Montford Point Marine Association Convention awards banquet. Arthur and Williams were two of approximately 20,000 black Marines who were trained at the Montford Point training facility in what is now known as Camp Johnson, North Carolina, when military forces were still segregated.
The MPMA hosted this year’s convention in New Orleans from July 16-20, bringing together hundreds of the organization’s leaders from across the nation, including almost 30 of the original Montford Point Marines.
“Marines of the future will remember the Montford Point Marines,” said Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, commander of Marine Forces Reserve. “We will never forget the sacrifice that the 20,000 Marines who were trained at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949 made for this nation. Those young men did not have to serve. They chose to stand up, take the oath and fight for their nation. I believe they set a foundation for the challenges that came later on for equality and civil rights.”
According to Dr. James T. Averhart, retired chief warrant officer 4 and national president of the MPMA, the theme for this year’s convention, “Preserving the Legacy,” centered around professional military education and training, and also updated members on the plans to break ground for a 25-acre memorial at Camp Johnson, dedicated to the Montford Point Marines. Workshops and briefs for active-duty and Reserve Marines at the convention included a mentoring roundtable with original Montford Point Marines, as well as a leadership panel with senior officers and enlisted Marines.
“I could not do what I did in the Marine Corps if it were not for the Montford Point Marines,” Averhart said.
Thomas Cork, Korean War veteran and survivor of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, had the chance to share his legacy of being a Montford Point Marine through the opportunities offered by the organizations at local chapters, regional meet-ups and national conventions.
“When I was discharged, I assumed it was the end of my time as a Montford Point Marine,” Cork said. “But as time went on, I and other Montford Point Marines realized the significance of our part in history. This is a very nice organization, I have had the chance to reconnect with guys who were in boot camp with me, as well as make new friends. It’s been very important to me.”
This year’s guest of honor was Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Bailey, deputy commandant of Plans, Policies and Operations. Bailey is the most senior black Marine officer serving in an active-duty status. During the convention’s awards banquet, Bailey presented Congressional Gold Medals to two of the original Montford Point Marines in attendance at the banquet.
“Our job is to make sure we remember the narrative of the Montford Point Marines, and to remind everyone else of the narrative,” Bailey said. “As a nation, we have needed, at times, a beacon in the dark. And while the Montford Point Marines were not the ones sailing our ships, they were the beacons in the dark, casting that light for us. These Marines were the change we needed to see in this world.”