On the 23rd of May, 1963, Corporal Bernard Shaw, a 23-year-old black Marine, sent an extraordinary letter to the commanding general of the Second Marine Air Wing and to other senior officers at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, North Carolina.
At that time, Cpl. Shaw was a very young United States Marine daring to take considerable risk in order to give voice to his outrage at racial discrimination.
Cpl. Shaw began by saying, “I, as an American citizen and Marine, stand in constant readiness to defend my country and in the wake of its defense, to give my life if necessary.”
He then went on to say:
“Yet on the other hand . . . , during my off-duty hours, I cannot venture one mile beyond Cherry Point’s front gate without encountering racial discrimination…. I and all other Marines are able and good enough to take up arms and fight for our country’s principles, but not quite equal enough to partake of that for which we fight.”
In his petition to Marine Corps leaders, Cpl. Shaw listed a number of the recent ways that “the city of Havelock has upheld the refusal of service to and accommodation of Negro Marines.”
He cited, for instance, the case of a black Marine in MABS-24 (one of Cherry Point’s squadrons) being arrested at a local drive-in movie theater and charged with trespassing because it was a “whites only” establishment. He also mentioned his own refusal of service at a local restaurant called The Italian Chef, where my sister Elaine was a waitress when she was in high school.
At The Italian Chef, Cpl. Shaw “stood down” in an apparently tense situation “to avoid an incident unbecoming to our Corps.”
Cpl. Shaw and other black Marines at Cherry Point compiled a long list of restaurants, bars, motels, barbershops and other local businesses that similarly denied service to black Marines.
“Every restaurant in Havelock, every bar in Havelock and yes even the Jet Drive-In restaurant, doggedly hold to a policy of serving Marines– if they are not Negro Marines,” Cpl. Shaw wrote. He then made an observation that must have been received with special concern at Base Headquarters.
The racial discrimination in Havelock, he went on to say, “has permeated the walls of this military installation,” leading “our [white] comrades-in-arms to adopt a racial cockiness which manifests itself in definite ways.”
I will quote Cpl. Shaw’s letter in some detail on this point.
“There are many [white] Marines who, at seeing us refused service and ejected from establishments, return to the base and in many ways make racial incitements which lead to contempt and near-riots and sometimes actual riots. That local conditions have served to incite racial voicings [sic], is evidenced by altercations. A MABS-27 altercation and near-riot was finally put down after an emergency call was made for the military police, whose drawn pistols temporarily settled a situation that will not be settled as long as long as certain conditions are allowed to thrive on inaction…. The festering bitterness from this altercation… yet remains and is alive with possibilities of recurring.”
MABS-27, whose personnel were involved in the “altercation and near riot,” was an aviation combat support squadron based at Cherry Point.
Broadening his argument, Corporal Shaw then outlined some of the other ways that racial discrimination in Havelock damaged camaraderie and morale on the Cherry Point MCAS.
He noted, for instance, that Cherry Point’s squadrons often held official social events at restaurants in Havelock. “What of the grating effect on a Marine’s morale,” Cpl. Shaw asked, if he “cannot attend because local proprietors will admit Caucasian Marines but refuse to serve Negro Marines?”
Cpl. Shaw also described how Cherry Point squadrons often held official social gatherings at local “whites only” beaches, where black Marines faced arrest if local authorities discovered them there.
The most popular of those “whites only” beaches was Atlantic Beach, on an island called Bogue Banks, 15 miles from Cherry Point. The island was also home to the Fort Macon State Park, a popular picnicking spot and swimming beach that was also “whites only” at that time.
In addition to citing cases of racial discrimination in civilian areas, Shaw also mentioned specific incidents of white racial antagonism on base. For instance, he referenced the case of a Lt. Cpl. McGinnis of MARS-27, another of the base’s squadrons. According to Shaw, Lt. Cpl. McGinnis found a note pinned to his barracks locker when he first arrived at Cherry Point in January 1963.
Shaw quoted the note: “Good niggers are dead niggers. We don’t want no more niggers in our barracks.”
Throughout his letter, Cpl. Shaw’s words indicate that he believed that he was sitting on a powder keg that could explode at any time.
“So many individuals feel that their expressions of violent bitterness over this situation, the incitements, the altercations, have fallen on deaf ears. Some persons [black Marines] have been involved in disciplinary actions within their commands. It is somewhat unfortunate that the essential source of most of these misdemeanors (racial unrest) have gone misconstrued and interpreted as being isolated, routine and unimportant.”
According to the young corporal, the failure of MCAS leadership to address the Jim Crow policies both in Havelock and in the city of New Bern, the county seat, where Marines at Cherry Point also often spent off-duty time, had led “to a storehouse of resentment.”
In even more forceful terms, Cpl. Shaw communicated to Marine Corps leadership that the racial situation in Havelock and at the Cherry Point MCAS was “rapidly gaining dangerous proportions in the . . . exhausted minds, souls and hearts of individual [black] Marines.”
Cpl. Shaw was certainly describing his own mind, soul and heart. But over the next few months, events would show that he was not alone. A considerable number of black Marines stationed at Cherry Point shared his feelings.
Like him, they were torn between the kind of pride, brotherhood and dedication that the Marine Corps sought to instill in all servicemen and women, on the one hand, and their treatment in a Jim Crow society that deemed them second-class citizens, on the other.
By the summer of 1963, black Marines at Cherry Point had clearly reached a breaking point. In the coming weeks, they would embrace the civil rights movement that was sweeping America.
In the end, they would play their own unique part in ending Jim Crow racial policies in Havelock and in the civilian communities that were located in proximity to military installations across the United States.
A Letter to President Kennedy
Six weeks after Cpl. Shaw wrote that protest letter, he and two other black Marines at Cherry Point, Cpl. Varner Crawford and Cpl. Raymond J. Brinson, Jr. directed an even more astonishing appeal directly to their commander-in-chief, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
In a telegram dated July 7, 1963, Cpl. Shaw began by telling Pres. Kennedy what an honor it had been to be present when he toured Marine Corps installations on the North Carolina coast in April of 1962.
You can find a recording of President John F. Kennedy’s remarks at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station on April 14, 1962 here.
In the telegram, he told the President that his “allegiance [to the United States of America] has been a Gibralter of faith and belief” for him throughout his life. However, he stated, he and other black Marines had had their morale and patriotism deeply shaken by their “second-class treatment” in Havelock.
In an accompanying petition, Cpls. Shaw, Crawford and Brinson– they called themselves the “Corporals Three”– described in a deeply moving fashion what it was like to be African American men in the Marine Corps in 1963.
“In the wake of the Negroes stride toward freedom and human dignity, we cannot help but feel the shame of three lackadaisical Uncle Toms,” they wrote President Kennedy.
“To not stand in open defiance of that which is unjust is to accept those injustices. How can we as Negroes in the armed forces, continue to stand in defense of the undemocratic system used to suppress our people?,” the Corporals Three asked.
They had been watching the civil rights protests that were occurring across the American South at that time– and the white violence that had so often greeted those protests. They were, in short, men ready to fight, but they obviously wanted to fight first and foremost for the freedom of their people.
“To passively stand by and watch the brutality used to suppress the Negro…leaves us tormented and in utter disgust with ourselves,” they continued.
At that time, Department of Defense (DoD) policy specifically prohibited members of the Armed Forces from participating in civil rights protests that involved breaking local laws and ordinances, even if those laws and ordinances were in defense of racial segregation and Jim Crow.
So, for example, a member of the Armed Forces could stand on a street corner and hold a placard calling for civil rights, at least so long as he or she was off-duty and not in uniform, if that did not violate any local ordinance.
However, they could not engage in sit-ins, insist on service at “whites only” business establishments or participate in other civil rights protests that local authorities in the southern states typically considered trespassing, disorderly conduct or other legal offenses.
Frustrated by that reality, the “Corporals Three” then said:
“It has become increasingly impossible for us to look upon ourselves as men for a man respects himself. A man stands fast in what he believes. When men lose their self-respect they cease to live and become nothing more than breathing masses incapable of formulating thought. Let this not be our destiny!”
The answer of the “Corporals Three” to this dilemma was to look at what they could do while serving in the Marine Corps to fight for racial equality both within the Corps and in Havelock and New Bern, the civilian communities nearest them– and to do so with or without the support of DoD policy.
I think the last paragraph of their letter to President Kennedy bears quoting at length:
“We were called to the defense of these United States recently during the Cuban crisis and also during the most recent Haitian threat. . .. We returned home to our enemies. Upon the [night] of our return to these United States[,] humiliation was thrust upon us. We were refused service at a drive-in restaurant less than 24 hours after our return from foreign soil in which we stood ready to defend . . . democracy and these United States.”
The “Corporals Three” continued:
Why? Because we are Negroes. This incident happened less than three blocks from the military base where we are stationed…. [Of course,] the injustices with which we are burdened are not new burdens . . .; however, we feel the need to speak out for the Negroes in the armed forces. We have approached our superiors with the question, “What is the command doing to improve the prevailing conditions of Negroes stationed her,e?” [T]he answer given us is, “Our hands are tied. This is a governmental problem rather than a command problem.”
They concluded by saying:
[But] when the morale of the Negroes stationed here is as affected as intensely as we have detected in conversing with the Negroes here– it then becomes much more than a governmental problem. It becomes the problem of the government, the command, and all of America.
Protests in New Bern
Events at Cherry Point came to a head on July 18, 1963, when police officers arrested ten black Marines at a civil rights protest in New Bern.
The black Marines had gone to New Bern to join a local NAACP Youth Council civil rights demonstration at two “whites only” business establishments, the A&W Drive-In and a Holiday Inn.
The protest had begun the day before, but got out of hand on the day that the Marines were there. According to an internal NAACP report, police officers arrested 45 to 50 demonstrators, injured two teenage boys (one with a nightstick) and permitted the owner of a service station next to the Holiday Inn to spray protestors with a water hose.
The police officers arrested either nine or ten black Marines (accounts differ) who were protesting at the A&W Drive-In and charged them with trespassing. (They were later convicted.)
Another black Marine at Cherry Point, Cpl. R. S. Stewart immediately stepped forward to their aid.
After the arrest of the black Marines, Cpl. Stewart contacted two of the nation’s leading civil rights groups, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Stewart requested their assistance in “abolishing all segregation outside the gates” of Cherry Point. (See Durham Morning Herald, July 23, 1959.)
With respect to CORE, Cpl. Stewart reached out to Floyd B. McKissick, an attorney and civil rights leader in his hometown, Durham, N.C. McKissick, a long-time NAACP activist, had just been elected chairman of CORE’s national board.
When speaking to the press, McKissick quoted Cpl. Stewart as saying that “nearly 300 Negro Marines have expressed interest in the movement [to end racial discrimination in Havelock and New Bern],” which, if true, represented approximately half of the black Marines stationed at Cherry Point at that time.
According to McKissick, Cpl. Stewart also alleged that “more than 100 white servicemen have agreed to support any demonstrations or other actions brought against segregated businesses.”
A second telegram came to McNamara from Farmer, McKissick and John Brooks, the NAACP’s national director of voter registration.
In those telegrams, Farmer, McKissick and Brooks requested an investigation of the treatment of black Marines in Havelock and New Bern. They also called for the Pentagon to place all businesses in those towns “off limits” to Marine personnel, black and white, until they ended racially segregated policies.
CORE and the NAACP
Things then moved very quickly. Within days, national CORE and the NAACP leaders announced that they would initiate civil rights protests in Havelock and New Bern in support of the black Marines.
Stoking the flames, Cpl. Bernard Shaw, evidently posing as an investigator from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), told at least one radio station that DOJ had received “hundreds of wires and letters protesting alleged segregation both on the air station and in the Havelock area.” (Charlotte Observer, July 23, 1963)
After hearing it on that radio station, a sizable number of newspapers re-printed Cpl. Shaw’s allegation, which may or may not have been accurate.
Cpl. Shaw apparently started the ruse earlier in the summer. At that time, he and other black Marines seem to have been systemically testing the racial policies of every restaurant and bar in Havelock and perhaps at some establishments in New Bern as well.
In at least some cases, Cpl. Shaw seems to have used a false identity and claimed that he was a DOJ investigator in order to question the proprietors of white businesses about their policies toward serving black Marines.
Posing as a federal official was a bold, reckless and many would say foolhardy act, but Cpl. Shaw may have felt as if he had little choice but to take on a false identity so that his service in the Marine Corps would not constrain his participation in the African American freedom struggle.
Cpl. Shaw was later found out and charged with impersonating a government official, though I have not found any record of him being the subject of disciplinary action at Cherry Point. (See, for instance, the Raleigh News & Observer, August 3, 1963).
At the same time, Pennsylvania Congressman Robert N. C. Nix, Sr., one of the four black members of the U.S. Congress, had taken up the cause of the black Marines at Cherry Point.
That July Nix’s staff began to communicate directly with CORE and NAACP leaders over the matter.
To circumvent the Pentagon bureaucracy, Nix used contacts inside Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office to place protest letters and other information from black Marines at Cherry Point directly on his desk.
The protests by the black Marines at Cherry Point and the growing publicity over the discrimination that they faced in Havelock and New Bern must have hit a nerve at the Pentagon.
In a way, the civil rights movement– including the black Marines at Cherry Point– was pushing the Armed Forces to take a stronger stand on racial equality across the United States.
DoD leaders knew that a great deal hung in the balance: the state of troop morale, the future success of black recruitment and the American public’s perception of the Armed Forces, just for starters– and all those factors affected the military’s number one concern, fighting readiness.
In 1963, no part of American society, including the military, could think about the country and not think about the African American freedom struggle.
The year 1963 was a turning point in that struggle for racial justice. It was the year of the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, when the nation watched Bull Conner’s officers turn water hoses and police dogs on children and Dr. King penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Among much else, 1963 was also the year that Ku Klux Klansmen blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and killed those four little girls.
In truth, the civil rights movement was blossoming in almost every corner of the American South. That included the small towns of eastern North Carolina and at other military installations not far from Cherry Point. By 1963 black servicemen and women had been engaged in at least some kind of civil rights protests at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., Pope Air Force Base in Goldsboro and Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.
But the black Marines at Cherry Point had made their stand for racial justice at a propitious and decisive moment.
Though it was not yet public, President Kennedy had just read a draft of a special report that he had commissioned on racial discrimination in military communities such as Havelock and New Bern.
The report was the result of a study ordered by the president in June 1962, following protests by African American servicemen stationed at military installations in the southern states.
Titled Equality of Treatment and Opportunity for Negro Military Personnel Stationed within the United States, the draft report confirmed the allegations of the black Marines at Cherry Point (as well as black servicemen and women elsewhere) and indicated that the situation had a high probability of harming the military’s fighting readiness if not handled in a proactive manner.
The draft report reached Pres. Kennedy’s desk sometime in mid-June 1963, just as the protests by black Marines of Jim Crow policies in Havelock and New Bern were heating up.
On June 21, 1963, the day that CORE and NAACP leaders telegrammed the Department of Defense about the situation at Cherry Point and threatened more widespread civil rights protests, Pres. Kennedy wrote Gerhard A. Gessell, the chairman of the committee that produced the report (the Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces).
In that letter, the president referred to racial discrimination as “one of the nation’s most serious problems” and noted that “the timeliness of your report is, of course, obvious.”
Kennedy also informed Gessell that he had “asked the Secretary of Defense to report to me on your recommendations within 30 days.”
The report’s findings were already common knowledge inside the Pentagon and at the various command headquarters. With the new support from Pres. Kennedy to take action, the Department of Defense moved quickly to endorse the report’s recommendations before CORE and the NAACP could take further steps toward mounting civil rights protests at Cherry Point.
Only five days after receiving the first telegrams from CORE and NAACP leaders, on the 26th of July, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara issued a landmark directive that affected all southern communities that were located in proximity to federal military installations.
Titled “Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces,” Directive 5120.36 sent a seismic shockwave through civilian communities such as Havelock, where the economy relied extensively on military bases and military personnel.
Directive 5120.36 read, in part:
“Every military commander has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may live or gather in off-duty hours.” (Italics mine.)
The era when America’s civilian and military leadership counseled Armed Forces commanding officers to remain neutral with respect to the racial practices in civilian communities near their outposts had ended.
McNamara’s directive went even further, however. In Directive 5120.36, he also gave base commanders a cudgel that they could wield to influence racial policies in the civilian communities around military installations.
In the directive, McNamara gave commanding officers the duty of using the economic power of their military installations to defend the civil rights of black Marines and people of color serving in other branches of the Armed Forces.
McNamara’s directive indicated that, with his approval, a commanding officer could even declare a town off-limits to military personnel as a response to “relentless discrimination against Negro soldiers.”
The directive even authorized DoD attorneys to represent black members of the Armed Forces if they were arrested while engaging in civil rights protests while off-duty.
“Total Integration of Havelock”
The Department of Defense issued Directive 5120.36 on July 25, 1963. Only a few hours later, the Havelock Merchants Committee convened a special meeting and passed a resolution in favor of “total integration of Havelock,” to quote a UPI wire story.
Havelock’s business leaders could only guess if they would be targeted by national civil rights groups or if the commanding officer at the Cherry Point MCAS would ever prohibit his troops from patronizing the town’s businesses.
The likelihood of one or both had just risen dramatically, however. They evidently wanted to take no chances.
At their meeting on July 25, the Havelock Merchants Committee’s approximately 70 members pledged to end all racially discriminatory practices in their restaurants, theaters, banks, motels, barbershops and other businesses immediately.
Their decision that night made my little hometown one of the first towns or cities in the state of North Carolina to open its businesses to all people on a basis of equality and mutual respect.
By contrast, Jim Crow remained the rule in the overwhelming majority of North Carolina’s towns and cities. That was true even in supposedly progressive communities such as Chapel Hill. In some towns, local authorities still did not permit African Americans to patronize any local businesses at all after sundown.
Growing up at Cherry Point
As I have studied our history, I have learned that there were many different paths to racial justice and equality in America in the 1950s and ’60s. All of them involved struggle. All of them were imperfect. All of them, in ways big and small, made us a better people.
Most of those civil rights struggles never made headlines or ended up in history books. Few are remembered today.
This story is one such example. To my knowledge, no one has previously written about the black Marines and their struggle for racial equality in Havelock and Cherry Point. Few, if any, have appreciated the role that those black Marines played in the struggle for racial equality across the South.
For me though this story is not just about history. It is also personal. I grew up in and around Havelock and the Cherry Point MCAS. I am the proud son of a career United States Marine and a local country girl who first met at Cherry Point in 1947.
Master Sergeant John Z. Cecelski served in the United States Marine Corps all the way from the Second World War to the Vietnam War Era.
During that summer of 1963, I was two, almost three years old. At that time, my mother, my two sisters and my brother and I were actually living at my grandmother’s home in Harlowe, a rural community 12 miles from Cherry Point.
That was because my father was overseas then. That summer he was deployed to a Marine Corps air base in Okinawa, Japan.
But usually, when I was a small child, we lived either on base or in Havelock. And whether we were staying at Cherry Point, Havelock or Harlowe, we were still very much a part of the local military community.
We shopped at the PX and the Commissary. We watched movies at the base theater. We swam at the base pools. We watched “The Blue Angels” perform at air shows, and we visited the Naval Air Re-work Facility, where my grandmother ran the tool room at an aircraft machine shop.
When my father came home from Okinawa, we moved back on base. And a few years later, when he was deployed overseas again, we moved off base again and made our home in Havelock for good.
As I said, I was just a little boy when all of this was happening. I am 61 years old now. And as I look back on my life, I sometimes find it difficult to understand the things in my past that shaped what I think are my very best parts and the things that shaped my maybe not-so-good parts.
A thousand little things make us who we are after all, and some big things, too.
But I like to think that growing up around Cherry Point and in a town such as Havelock, where black and white children began going to school together in 1959 (see my other story in this 2-part series) and where the town’s businesses began to welcome people of all colors in 1963, made a positive difference in my life.
At that time, there were so very few places in North Carolina or anywhere elsewhere in the southern states where that would have been the case. But it was the case in Havelock.
And for that, I now know, I have a group of unsung black Marines who were determined not to give up on America and who had the courage to stand up for what they believed to thank.
Many thanks to the archivists and curators at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Naval History and Heritage Command for their help with the research for this story. A special shout-out also to my friend Eddie Ellis, Havelock’s official town historian: I never write anything about Havelock without his help and guidance.