“At Notre Dame, I joined the Navy ROTC program. That was my first step towards service in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1958, I went to Quantico for 32 weeks of officer training. During those days, few minorities were assigned infantry and I wanted to be an infantry officer. Black officers were a rarity, but my overriding desire was to be a top Marine.
When I was an infantry officer coming up for major, I volunteered to go to Vietnam because leading a company in combat was crucial to becoming a general. I was the first black Marine officer to command an infantry company in combat. The hardest part of my job was being directly or indirectly responsible when one of my men was killed.
Walter was a young black kid, maybe 18, who came to speak to me. He stood at attention and said ‘sir, I can’t go out on patrol tomorrow. I talked to the Lord and He told me that I could die and I should not go out.’ I said, ‘Walter, you’ve got one big problem. The Lord didn’t talk to me. I want you out there.’
The next morning we spread out and in a rice field and started moving. Walter was about 20 meters to my right. The first blast hit Walter and killed him. I went up and hugged him. I told myself that when I got back I was going to visit the families of my Marines who were killed. I visited Walter’s family and that was the first and last one. I couldn’t do it again.
I was in Vietnam for 13 months. I was hit by shrapnel twice and the rule was when you were wounded the second time they took you out of combat. I have shrapnel in my shoulder and a steel rod from a broken femur. They moved me to a civil affairs outreach program going into villages providing medical and dental care to help the Vietnamese. Those with cleft palates were outcasts because of how they looked. I worked with Dr. Barry Booth, a dentist in Spanish Fort. We operated and did repair work on cleft palates and helped a lot of children. My God it was something.
In Catholic school, Sister Eulogia used to tell us that there’s always room at the top. You can make it happen. I was a Marine officer in June 1964 and thinking about my career and what I should do next. I had only seen two generals in my life, they were both white, but I thought I could do it, too. I wrote a note to myself that night with the question, ‘Did you make it Cooper’? I sealed it and wrote on the back ‘Do not open for 20 years.’
Twenty years later, I was a colonel and the commandant called to tell me I had been selected to become a brigadier general of the Marine Corp. I went home and found the note, it was ten days from when I said I could open it. I made it and the note now hangs on my wall. A young black kid from Mobile became the first African American infantry general in the Marine Corps. My message is that there is always room at the top.
It was stressful always being the first Black man breaking down barriers. In the Marine Corps. Frank Peterson, who became the first black Marine Corps General, and I would meet regularly. We knew people were always watching us and we had to work to be the best. Youngsters would look up to us because they had never seen someone who looked like us. We always had to be outstanding.
I tell young black officers that if you work hard and think that you’re being judged like everyone else, you’re pissing in the wind. You better get up earlier, you better run faster and you better work harder. My daughter Shawn became a Marine officer and I am proud to say she can outshoot me on the rifle range.
After my father died in 1968, I mustered out of the Marines and returned to Mobile to take over the Christian Benevolent. Leaving the Marine Corps was a tough decision, but it was also the best decision of my life because it allowed me to do other things. We started Commonwealth National Bank in Mobile, 42 years ago. Today there are only 19 black-owned banks in the United States.
I served on the board of U.S. Steel with Neil Armstrong, the first man who walked on the moon. When I got home, Franklin Health Center was just getting started and they had a golf tournament. I called Neil Armstrong and asked him to join us. He came and stayed at my house. The police officers who knew he was there kept stopping by to make sure he was okay. One cute story, a neighborhood boy stopped by to ask if Louis Armstrong was there.
I was elected to the Alabama legislature in 1973. It was the first time an African American had been elected from South Alabama. George Wallace was governor and I got to know him. I became his floor leader to help him get laws passed through. We agreed that if we didn’t’ agree with each other we would still be friends and it worked out. He did a lot of bad, but he tried to do better after he was shot. I think being close to death made him realize he needed to treat people better. I believe he changed. He held my hand and talked about things he wished he had not done.
George H.W. Bush appointed me as an assistant secretary of the Air Force. One of the more interesting things I did was become the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica. The country never had an African American ambassador. We worked hard on improving schools and access to better medical care. After I returned home to Mobile and got involved in the community again. I worked for better healthcare, education and support of black-owned businesses.
When I talk to young people about leadership, I tell them how fortunate they are to participate in the miracle of America. The miracle of America means that you have an opportunity to be whatever you want to be, but you’ve got to prepare yourself.”
This is Part Two of Maj. General Gary Cooper’s story. It was taken from our interviews for the “Buried in Oaklawn” series now running in Lagniappe. Some stories were filled in from the book Ten Stars, a biography about Maj. Gen.Cooper written by Kendal Weaver.
Here is the link to the story “Oaklawn Cemetery is Mobile’s Forgotten Burial Ground”: https://lagniappemobile.com/oaklawn-cemetery-is-mobiles-forgotten-burial-ground/
Link to Part one of General Cooper’s story: https://oursouthernsouls.com/we-are-the-first-black-family-to-have-three-generations-graduating-from-the-university-of-notre-dame/
Picture from Rando Dixon’s mural on South Claiborne Street.