Cooley awarded Congressional Gold Medal for service as Marine

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2014

 

For his country: D.K. Cooley was one of the first African Americans to enter the United States Marine Corps after FDR’s historic Executive Order that desegregated the military. Jodi Marze | Picayune Item

For his country: D.K. Cooley was one of the first African Americans to enter the United States Marine Corps after FDR’s historic Executive Order that desegregated the military.
Jodi Marze | Picayune Item

D.K. Cooley of Picayune was recently honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in a ceremony held in New Orleans, La.

Many may recognize Cooley as the friendly face of the Picayune Wal-Mart, where he worked for 19 years and 4 months, until he retired at the age of 80. That was eight years ago. Only a few may know that Cooley was one of the first African Americans to enlist in the United States Marine Corps after then President Franklin D. Roosevelt United States Marine Corps  issued Executive Order #9981.

The order established the Fair Employment Practices Commission and was instrumental in desegregating the Marine Corps. The order was an expansion of Executive Order #8802, which barred government agencies, and federal contractors from racially based discrimination in their recruitment practices.

Cooley and approximately 20,000 of his fellow African American Marines were trained at Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina between 1942 and 1949.

These men, known as the Montford Point Marines, were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 in a ceremony held in the U.S. Capital Building.

When asked why he chose to enlist, Cooley said, “Once you were 18 you had to register for selective service and three months later I got this letter saying ‘Greetings …’ it turned out that Uncle Sam had volunteered for me. I had three choices— Army, Navy or the Marines.”

While legislation could dissolve racial discrimination in hiring practices, Cooley said it did not dissolve discrimination itself.

“Recruits were discriminated against. The experience was very discriminatory, but being born in the South— you learn to adjust. It is a matter of survival. If you didn’t live with it, you could executed for treason,” Cooley said.

The war ended two and a half years after Cooley enlisted. His time as a Marine allowed him to see Hawaii and Guam.

The time since has allowed the now 88-year-old Cooley to see change for the better in racial relations.

“I’m pleased because I see things in Picayune and the state of Mississippi that reflect change. I have seen things that I never thought would happen,” Cooley said. “If you had told me back then that this (change) could happen I would have said, ‘No, that can’t be.’”

“As human beings, we have got to live with certain things. Tolerance is one thing we have to have. I believe what the Bible said about God having the final authority.  I try to live accordingly.”

Cooley said that the thing he knows for sure is that change takes time, but when the heart changes then everything else changes with it.