Congress Honors WWII Veteran from Alameda

Courtesy photo. His fellow marines flank Benjamin Jenkins as he displays his Congressional Gold Medal certificate.

Benjamin Jenkins, Alameda resident of 20 years and veteran of the United States Marine Corps and United States Air Force, was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his service during World War II on Feb. 21.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. Congress. In 2011, Congress awarded the medal to the Montford Point Marines, a segregated unit, of which Jenkins was a member.

Out of the 20,000 people who trained at the segregated facility at Montford Point, North Carolina, 500 are alive today and 300 travelled to Washington, D.C. to accept the award. Jenkins received his award in Oakland through the office of Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

“We recognize the Montford Point Marines as brave trailblazers who fought for increased social integration, civil rights, and an end to racial discrimination in the armed services,” wrote Lee in a letter regarding Jenkins’ award.

The awarding of the medal to the unit helps dispel a negative belief concerning the involvement of black people in the American military. African Americans have fought in every war “starting with the Revolutionary War,” said Jenkins.

Even so, many of the Montford Point Marines were held back by military leaders because of the racist belief that black people were not fit for duty.

Jenkins said that it is important to him that people know about his service as well as the service of many other black men. The American military has hidden the contributions of black people and has built and enforced an image about the capabilities of African Americans by hiding their involvement and success in the wars.

Black people were not allowed to serve in the Marine Corps until 1942. Jenkins enlisted that year.

At the Montford Point segregated facility, Jenkins slept in unfinished living quarters. Black marines slept on the ground in low-quality tents while the white Marines slept in clean tents with wooden floors. “We didn’t particularly care for that,” said Jenkins.

Many of Jenkins’ commissioned officers heavily doubted the capabilities of Jenkins and his men.

“We all knew that it was more than serving the country. It was proving something to the country,” said Jenkins. “We were determined to prove what the American military didn’t believe could happen with African Americans: intelligence, courage, understanding of complications, abstract thinking, and so forth.”

Jenkins considers himself a symbol of “progress and attitude changing.” He believes that attitude changing is one of the most important factors in conquering racism in the U.S.

Because this negative attitude toward black people is so pervasive in our society, the exposed truth about the Montford Point Marines is “difficult for some to believe.”

Jenkins served in the Air Force as a veteran of the Marine Corps after the military had been integrated. “I was the only African American in my class and the rest of the four classes except for one guy, but I was the only veteran,” he said.

Jenkins’ classmates neither believed that black people served in the Marines nor believed that he had served. His classmates were determined to see him fail.

“To compete in our society, we have to have a strong self image, know what we want and what’s necessary to get there,” said Jenkins. “We know what it is you have to do as African Americans. You’ve got to have twice that which is needed to get the job.”

“I’ve had a Georgia  policeman put a gun to my head and make me go around a post to go under the ‘Colored’ sign. I’ve had to fight on a bus with people trying to make me move one seat to the back when I was already in the back. I’ve had all those things to test me and all they did was make me stronger.”

“It’s painful, because when I start talking about the things that happened to me when I didn’t do anything, I get angry. If the cop who put a gun to my head because I walked on the wrong side of a post that said ‘Colored, White,’ I’d still kick his bottom if I saw him.”

“You can’t keep people back from progress if they feel good about themselves,” said Jenkins.

Isabelle Sullivan is an Alameda Sun intern. She can be reached at editor@alamedasun.com.