Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Ten Stars for Major General J. Gary Cooper

Published:Sunday | February 26, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Cover of Ten Stars.

The title says it all: Ten Stars: The African-American Journey of Gary Cooper, Marine General, Diplomat, Businessman and Politician by Kendal Weaver.

In Jamaica, those of us fortunate enough to have met this Marine general probably did so during his tenure as Ambassador of the United States of America to Jamaica from 1994 -1997 or as a director of the American Friends of Jamaica.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton, Cooper was America's first black Ambassador to Jamaica. Tall, good-looking, disciplined, with a wry sense of humour, Cooper made his mark by speaking his mind.

Pragmatically, he observed that if the government licensed gambling, the money could be a boost to educating the island's youth. The Church here was not amused, sparking a degree of controversy, which Cooper took in his stride. As the first African-American to command a Marine Corps infantry company, he had experienced bigger battles.

Weaver very wisely begins this book in Vietnam, where Cooper had to call for "mast", to ensure that he was put in command of that infantry fighting unit and not assigned to transportation or maintenance, as was the norm, to ensure that white soldiers wouldn't have to serve under a black officer.

 

Overcoming prejudice

 

Though the real meat of the book is the number of instances where Cooper overcame prejudice, Weaver takes us back to the beginning of his ancestry, where Cooper came from, to better understand the full extent of his accomplishments. And they really are in all the fields mentioned in the book's title.

Cooper would be the last person to suggest that Black History should be recognised only one month of the year, but the timing of this biography could not be better because Cooper's life is history, and the author, Kendal Weaver, correspondent with The Associated Press, took great care not only to include excerpts of interviews with the man, but also to provide notes and a bibliography of sources. Jerome Gary Cooper was born in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1936 when segregation and discrimination were the order not only of the deep South, but of all America.

Cooper's family history is fascinating, with a great-grandmother born of an African, whose offspring became part of French Catholic plantation descendants. His mother's home was in Louisiana, while his father's was in Mobile, Alabama, where family lore has him descending from a fierce Indian warrior, Osceola, who fought the removal of Seminoles from Florida.

In Mobile, where Cooper still resides, his family formed part of the city's African-American elite, thanks in part to his great-aunt, a strong business woman whose acumen helped build the Christian Benevolent Funeral Home - she began her business in 1928 - and with which Cooper is still associated. He is also with the Commonwealth National Bank, which he helped create almost 40 years ago. it was the first and only minority-owned and operated national bank in Alabama.

Cooper's parents were strong believers in education. His father nearly bankrupted himself sending his children to schools in the North. Gary Cooper was one of only three blacks to graduate out of a class of 1,500 at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, in 1958.

 

Medals

 

Serving as an officer in the Marine Corps from 1958 to 1970 he earned the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Silver, and Bronze Stars. Cooper describes how Frank E. Petersen, the first African-American Marine corps general, Benjamin O. Davis Jr, the first African-American general in the US Air Force, and Samuel L. Gravely, the first African-American Admiral in the US Navy, were his inspirations. There were few blacks in any branch of the military who made it into the upper ranks, but Cooper always had his eye on that goal. Later, he made it a point to promote more equal distribution of leadership positions in the US military.

His exploits in business began when he left the Marine Corps - while remaining a major in the US Marine Corps Reserves - in 1970 and went into the family's funeral and insurance business and helped found the bank. In 1973, he served in the Alabama State Legislature, one of the first African-Americans elected in Southern Alabama after reconstruction.

In 1978, he joined the Cabinet of the Governor of Alabama. In 1988, he returned to active Marine duty as a major general, and in 1989, President Bush appointed him the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and the Environment. Here, he began rectifying some of the injustices done to the Montford Point Marines, African-American Marines who served in World War II but who were never given leadership opportunities that they deserved.

Cooper's straight-talking comments and pragmatic approach to life are brought to life by Weaver.

Once, when asked to fly over to Zimbabwe to try speaking with officials there, where foreign diplomats were being threatened, Cooper's no-nonsense reply was: "I want to see how you're going to guarantee that I get my ass back home." He often had to manoeuvre his way through verbal pitfalls and difficult situations. His advice: be careful which fights you pick. "The cause might be the best in the world, but if I couldn't win, or even make a big dent, why make people pissed off at you by fighting?"

The sections on his siblings, wife, and his three children add depth to a man whose life has been a series of achievements, sometimes at the cost of family time, yet Patrick, a Yale Law School graduate, became a lawyer; Joli graduated from Wharton School of Business; and Gladys Shawn is a Marine Corps officer and J.L. Kellogg School of Business graduate. It was Shawn who felt his story should be told and sought out Weaver to highlight the amazing life of historic value.