Raymond Williams was born and raised in poverty in New Orleans, and voluntarily enlisted in the Marines when he was 18.
“I went in because I wanted to get the G.I. Bill. I wanted to go to college,” said Williams. “My mother died when I was 2, and my father and sisters raised me. We didn’t have much. I saw the Marines and the G.I. Bill as opportunities to make a better life for me and my family.”
Williams’ story probably mirrors a lot of those who saw their service as a gateway to a better life.
But the year was 1946, and the Marines were not yet integrated.
“I thought the Marines was such a terrific armed service to be in. I thought the Marines were great,” Williams recalled. “And I loved those uniforms.”
But he also saw very quickly how differently white and black Marines were treated, starting with training.
Upon enlisting, Williams reported to Montford Point, Camp Lejeune, N.C., for segregated recruit training rather than the traditional Parris Island, S.C., or San Diego, CA facilities.
From 1942 to 1949, nearly 20,000 black Marines trained at Montford Point, Williams among them.
At Montford, Marines lived in wooden barracks with concrete floors, had outhouses for bathrooms, no washing machines and pot belly stoves for heat.
It wasn’t until he transferred to Onslow Beach at Hadnot Point, Camp Lejeune that Williams really saw the differences between black and white Marines, in…well, black and white.
At Hadnot Point, white Marines lived in brick buildings with tile floors, bathrooms in the buildings, and air conditioning and heating units.
“I’ve seen the hard part and the good part of the Marine Corps. Believe me, there was a difference,” he said.
He served most of his two years of service at the Naval Ammunition Depot Marine Base in Earle, New Jersey, where he served as a military policeman.
True to his dreams, after his service, Williams earned business and secondary education degrees from Xavier University. He later taught in the New Orleans school system, then went to work for NASA, overseeing the space command center at Michoud Assembly Facility.
Williams passed this week at the age of 92, survived by all seven of his children (every one a college graduate), 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
In 2011, Williams and all Montford Point Marines were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress for distinguished achievement — for their service leading to integration in the Marine Corps.
A memorial to the Montford Point Marines stands in the LeJeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, NC. According to the official website, the memorial carries this inscription:
They Arrived…in 1942, after President Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in the National Defense industry).
They Served… In the bloody wars of WWII, Korean and Vietnam.
They Lived… As sterling examples of integrity and service, in spite of the racial injustices they endured.
Certainly, a fitting description for Cpl. Raymond Williams, and his exemplary life.