News: African-American Marines receive nation's highest civilian honor
Story by Cpl. Marcin Platek
NEW ORLEANS - Winston Burns Sr. sat in his chair, a tense expression visible on his face -- he was about to receive America’s highest civilian honor.
As one of the 15 living Montford Point Marines in Louisiana who blazed the trail to racial equality in the Marine Corps, Burns was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony here Sept. 10 for his persistence through the Corps’ segregated basic training during World War II at Montford Point, N.C.
“The sacrifice of these men paved the way for other minorities and all women to be integrated into the Marine Corps,” said retired Master Sgt. Anthony Davis, the narrator for the event. “By their sacrifice, the Montford Point Marines engineered a social and cultural change in the Marine Corps that created a lasting impact and has contributed to the success of today’s Marine Corps.”
Nearly seven decades ago, approximately 20,000 African-American men enlisted in the Marine Corps as a result of a presidential directive established by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. These men underwent rigorous training at Montford Point, N.C., and ended up fighting in some of the toughest battles of World War II.
“By breaking the color barrier in 1942, the Montford Point Marines became part of the rich legacy of our Corps,” stated Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, in an official message to the Montford Point Marines. “They answered the nation’s call despite our society being deeply divided along racial lines.”
Instead of being discharged after the war, the African-American Marines were given a chance to stay in the service as they had proven themselves in combat. However, they still had a fight to face on the homefront.
“They persevered during a time of great racial division and in a society that did not want them,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Ronald C. Johnson, the president of the Montford Point Marine Association Granville Alexandria Chapter in New Orleans. “They truly had to fight for their right to fight.”
That fight ultimately helped transform the social status of African-Americans by granting them equal rights and making discrimination illegal. For this tremendous achievement, Congress voted that they should be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
“The Montford Point Marines can receive great satisfaction in knowing that through their sacrifices, today our Corps is more diverse than in anytime in our storied history,” said Lt. Gen. Steven A. Hummer, the commander of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North. “This award recognizes the Montford Point Marines’ contributions to the Marine Corps and broader American society.”
The Congressional award was symbolically presented to Montford Point Marines during a ceremony inside Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol June 27 that included 400 Montford Point Marines in attendance. Each Marine later received a bronze replica of the original gold medal, which is currently being prepared for display in the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.
In similar ceremonies throughout the U.S., Reserve and active-duty Marines are ensuring that those Monford Point Marines who were unable to travel to the Washington, D.C. event, were honored locally, said Hummer, who presented the medal to Burns. In total, Reserve Marines distributed 72 medals to Montford Point Marines or their next of kin.
Burns’ Marine Corps career started in the hallowed corridors of Montford Point in January 1943. During World War II, he served as an artilleryman in the 51st Defense Battalion. After the war, Burns joined a Reserve unit and returned to New Orleans to complete his education at Xavier University.
In October 1950, Burns was recalled to support the 105 mm howitzers with the 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, until December 1951. He left the Corps as a sergeant and secured his place in history, along with the rest of the Montford Point leathernecks.
As a respected member of the community, Burns taught health and physical education for more than 25 years in the New Orleans school system. He was a role model to many children as the head coach of the school track and football teams, and was equally pivotal when he served in the Juvenile Court for the Parish of Orleans for 25 years. He has five children with his wife, Gretta, along with 13 grandchildren, many of whom carry on his legacy by serving in the community.
“We have men like Sgt. Burns to thank for helping our Corps to grow into the band of brothers we are today,” said Hummer. “His life is that of service to the country, the Corps, and others…”