Late Montford Point Marine, Sumter native, receives Congressional Gold Medal recognition at ceremony

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The family of a late Sumter native and veteran accepted the highest congressional honor a civilian can receive on his behalf this weekend for the part he played in desegregating the U.S. Marine Corps and advancing social justice.

John Paul Wright was a member of the Montford Point Marines from June 30, 1943, through Feb. 20, 1946, the first black men ever allowed to fight for their country as Marines. Seven decades later, his niece, nephew, son and sister accepted a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded on benhalf of all Montford Point Marines on Saturday at Lincoln High School, a gesture they said vindicates his bravery and service during World War II.

"My uncle was highly intelligent, and his life was not given just credence," Thomasina M. Portis said. "We have heard a lot about the Tuskegee Airmen, but we have not heard a lot about the Montford Point Marines. The Montford Point Marines are to the Marines as the Tuskegee Airmen are to the Air Force. [They were] people who dared to say that we are capable, competent, and that we will do a great job."

Portis said Wright actually enlisted in 1942 and that he was one of the first 10 to arrive at Montford Point, North Carolina, for segregated basic training before being sent to Okinawa, Japan.

Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practice Commission and banned discrimination "because of race, creed, color or national origin" in any government agency, allowed black men to serve in the military, the more than 20,000 who joined the Marines still faced racism and segregation.

Tyrone Jackson, president of the Montford Point Marine Association Chapter 9 in Beaufort, said Wright and the other first Montford Point Marines had to cut down trees to build their own lodging at the camp - now called Camp Johnson - near Jacksonville, North Carolina, where railroad tracks divided white and black residents.

"I thought they let them fight in the war because the fighting got so intensive that they had to include them in the fight," Jackson said. "That ain't what happened. What happened is some of the white Marines' wives and parents was wondering why none of these black Marines was dying in combat, and they realized they wasn't dying because they wouldn't let them fight.

"So, they started complaining about it, and that's how African-Americans got the right to fight for their country. Imagine that."

In 2011, President Obama signed into law legislation that collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines. In 2012, about 500 of them attended a ceremony to receive the honor, and those unable to attend received a replica award through the mail or during other local ceremonies after being identified.

Wright was not included in that original list of those who attended or received a medal.

"These heroes paved the way for future generations of warriors, regardless of background, to serve in the finest military the world has ever known," reads a letter from Obama included with the medal.

Robert Dinkins, a U.S. Navy veteran, said he saw the ceremony on TV and remembered Wright.

"He's a war hero, and there are too many like him who don't get recognized for their achievements," Dinkins said.

He contacted the Montford Point Marine Association, which led to the medal being bestowed upon Wright's surviving family members.

He said when he attended Wright's funeral, the occasion was scarred with the knowledge that something was missing. This brave man, a man who paved the way for so many others in social justice and civil rights, remained in the shadows of history.

Saturday's ceremony, he said, was a joy.

"He got his due," Dinkins said. "He got his due today."

Portis, who sat next to Wright's 90-plus-year-old sister, his only remaining nuclear family member still alive, during the ceremony, said the day was bittersweet.

"I'm here with both happy and sorrow moments," she said. "I'm happy because he dared to lead, and I'm sorry about the fact that it has taken so long to understand that the people who really made a difference had no respect of color. They were people from all races and all nationalities. And [he] was one of those heroes."

She said another sad mark on her uncle's life is the fact that after his first 40 years, which included serving his country, breaking barriers, getting a degree, teaching, coaching and playing football, his last 40 were spent in illness from un-managed PTSD.

"He may not have had the opportunity to be recognized then," she said, "but thank God he is being recognized now."