Retired Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper remembers many things from his youth in Mobile. The poor neighborhood, the dusty dirt roads and the segregated Catholic school he attended called St. Peter Claver. It was there he heard the words that would help define his military career.
While a student at the all-black school, a Dominican nun told his class that the white people who supported segregation in Mobile were “crazy.” She told them that no matter what, there “was room at the top.”
Those were words that stuck with the young Cooper throughout his career with the U.S. Marine Corps. They were words he wouldn’t forget.
“I can remember once being aboard a ship in the Pacific, trying to think of what I wanted to do,” he said. “I loved the Marine Corps. I loved that uniform, but I knew we had no black generals.”
At that moment he remembered what the nun had said to him years earlier and he wrote himself a note that read, “Cooper, did you make it?” He sealed it up and kept it tucked away.
“When they called me to tell me I had been selected for general, I had my daughter open it and, of course, what did it say? ‘Cooper, did you make it?’ and that was 20 years before that I had written that note,” he said.
Life in Mobile
Cooper is a dedicated Marine who fought in Vietnam and sacrificed for the country, but not even he could escape the prejudices of life in the Jim Crow South. It even made his birth more difficult.
Although his parents had moved to Mobile after marriage, Cooper was born in his mother’s hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, because there were no hospitals in Mobile that would admit black women for childbirth, he said.
“So, mother went home and I was born at my grandmother’s house in the same bed that she and her sisters and some of my cousins were born in,” Cooper said. “I was the oldest of six.”
After he had graduated and left Mobile, issues related to skin color still affected those closest to him.
While he attended Most Pure Heart of Mary High School, Cooper’s father tried to get one of his other sons, William, into the all-white McGill. Cooper said given his fair complexion and straight hair, he was initially admitted.
“Three, four, five weeks later they looked and saw he came from St. Peter Claver, a black school, and they expelled him,” Cooper said. “The bishop told my daddy that not only was he pissed off at him that he wouldn’t allow any of his children to go to any of the Catholic schools in Mobile, and my daddy ended up sending all of my siblings out of town to go to school because he didn’t want to send them to the public schools.”
He said his brother, A.J., who would later become mayor of Prichard, went to school in Illinois.
But even a generation later, the prejudices Cooper encountered began to affect his own children.
Cooper said he can remember returning to Mobile after college and a little more than a decade in the Marine Corps. At the time, his daughter Shawn — who would later become a Marine Corps officer — was swimming with a team at the downtown YMCA. He specifically remembers one swim meet in particular.
“She goes out to the country club and they won’t let the team swim because she was on the team,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of stories like that. I can remember when I got home, the swimming pools were closed. No black kids had any swimming pools.”
When Cooper decided to get remarried to his second wife in the 1970s, after “six, seven or eight years” as a bachelor, he had a run-in with the local probate court over the marriage license.
“They give me a colored marriage register to sign,” he said. “I tell the guy [at the front counter], ‘I’ve got five rows of ribbons, I fought in Vietnam and I got to sign a … colored marriage registry.’”
He said he signed the registry because the wedding reception had already been planned. However, he didn’t forget the slight. When the local probate judge wanted to retire and needed Cooper’s approval as a local legislator to do it, he used his power to make a difference.
“I said ‘only one way,’” Cooper said. “I said, ‘let me see your last copy of the colored marriage registry’ and he said, ‘colonel, it’s all over.’ That was the end of the colored marriage registry.”Notre Dame
When Cooper was, as he said, a “young teenager,” his parents, who had both graduated from Hampton University in Virginia, were raising donations for a hospital. Cooper said he remembers meeting the Most Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, archbishop of New York, who had come to help with the hospital plans.
During a visit with the family, the archbishop had a conversation with Cooper about his college plans. He asked him if he’d heard of the University of Notre Dame.
“He told me to check on it and if I should ever decide to go, he would write me a letter,” Cooper said. “I still have the letter he wrote recommending that I go to Notre Dame. I got an academic scholarship.”
Cooper, who came from a devout Catholic family, said the university’s popularity, along with the promise of the letter, pushed him toward the school.
Kendal Weaver, former Associated Press reporter and author of the Cooper biography “Ten Stars: The African American Journey of Gary Cooper — Marine General, Diplomat, Businessman and Politician,” said moving away was a big event for him. Weaver said the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president, went out of his way to make sure he and two other African-Americans in his graduating class felt comfortable there.
Weaver said Hesburgh believed having Cooper at the school helped with integration. Cooper graduated in 1958.
At Notre Dame, Cooper said he became a member of the school’s Navy ROTC program. Upon graduation, he could choose to be commissioned as a Naval officer or as a Marine officer. The choice for Cooper was clear, even going back to his childhood.
He remembered the black theater in the Down the Bay community called the Harlem. Specifically, he remembered one Sunday and a double feature, which at the Harlem meant they played the same movie twice, he said.
“Man, I went one day and I saw ‘The Sands of Iwo Jima’ with John Wayne,” he said. “I figured anyone that tough, Cooper wanted to be like him. So, that’s how I chose to be a Marine, but I had never seen a black Marine officer.”
In fact, at the time Cooper graduated from college, he was one of only six black officers out of some 20,000 in the Marine Corps.
He began as an infantry officer and even led infantry units before Vietnam.
“I was the first [African-American] to command a Marine detachment aboard a ship,” Cooper said. “For two years, I was on the USS Chicago and then from there I went to another place and then I got orders to Vietnam.”
Cooper was asked to be a supply officer in Vietnam, but he wanted to see some combat. He asked, instead, for a meeting with his senior officer.
“I requested mast,” he said. “I wanted to see the commanding general.”
Cooper was allowed his infantry position.
“So, I knew you didn’t meet any generals who were supply officers or motor transport officers,” he said. “They all had Purple Hearts and ribbons from fighting. So, I knew when I went to Vietnam that if I wanted to be a Marine — in fact, I wasn’t even thinking about being the first, or second or third black, I was thinking about being a hell of a Marine.”
He said that position definitely helped him attain the rank of general later on.
“Having to compete before that promotion board and competing against someone who had combat experience, yeah, you had to do that,” he said.
Cooper was injured twice in Vietnam and was taken out of combat. He’s received two Purple Hearts. After being removed from combat, he was given the position of civil affairs officer. In that position, he was responsible for “winning the hearts and minds of civilians in the villages.”
While in that position, Cooper and a doctor friend began fixing the cleft palates of children in some of the villages.
After about 12 or 13 years on active duty, Cooper’s father died and he came home to help run the family business, Christian Benevolent Funeral Home. While home, he led a reserve unit out of Municipal Park before being called back to head up Marine personnel.
Cooper would be only the second black general in the history of the Marine Corps.
State government work
When he came home, Cooper was persuaded to run for a seat in the state Legislature. He ran against and beat Pat Edington. He joked that he was considered the conservative in that race.
“I was on the board of the Red Cross and I was a veteran,” he said. “I ended up beating her and that’s how I ended up on the Legislature.”
While in office, Cooper was focused on reforming the prison system, a problem that plagues the state to this day.
“It was filthy,” he said of prisons at the time. “The food had pig eyes in it and there was feces all over the place. It was horrible.”
He said he was never able to do much about prisons, even though he wanted to.
“When I look at how it is now that’s been a problem throughout the years,” Cooper said. “Nobody wanted to do anything about it.”
He said he doesn’t have an opinion on the overcrowding issue currently affecting the state prisons, but he did mention the prosecution of “minor drug offenses,” as at least part of the problem.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “They’ve got to fix it. I don’t know how.”
Shortly after being elected to a second term in the Legislature, Cooper was appointed by Gov. Fob James to oversee what is now known as the state Department of Human Resources.
Although this was the largest cabinet position an African-American had ever been appointed to, Cooper was not the first African-American appointed to a cabinet position. That honor goes to Jesse Lewis, who was appointed to a position by Gov. George Wallace, Cooper said.
“We did an awful lot,” Cooper said of his time at the department. “I got complaints about service, about how people were treated, about how they were talked to, and so we worked on that. We got people enthusiastic. We got people to understand their mission.”
Cooper said the department of 5,000 employees began a work training program called Opportunities Industrialization Center, or OIC. The OIC program would provide eight weeks of training to folks looking for work.
“We started having packed classes,” Cooper said. “About 90 percent of the youngsters we got jobs for because employers were interested in people who wanted to go to training and weren’t demanding to get paid [for the training].”
Then, as Weaver put it, Cooper had a falling out with James during the governor’s first administration.
First, Cooper had studied other states to find ways to mail food stamps to disabled and elderly recipients. Then, James wanted to cut the DHR by 20 to 30 percent, which in Cooper’s eyes meant he was going back on a promise he made to support him. Cooper said he was eventually fired by James.
Federal government work
Cooper took a job as a vice president of marketing at Volkert Engineering before getting appointed as an assistant secretary of the Air Force under President George H.W. Bush.
In his secretarial position, Cooper worked to make sure the branch’s promotion board promoted equally, including more women and minorities.
“I’ve gotten comments for the first time in the history of the Air Force, their promotion board promoted people on an equal level,” Cooper said,“… for the first time in history.”
After his stint as assistant Air Force secretary, Cooper was told he was on the short list to become President Bill Clinton’s choice for secretary of the Navy.
While that call never came, he was eventually contacted by Mobile native Alexis Herman, then the secretary of labor. Cooper said she asked whether he would be interested in becoming the first black U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.
Cooper said his third wife, Beverly, would visit him quarterly while he was on the island. Her visits gave respite to those dealing with the grizzled Marine general on a daily basis.
“They said they’d hate to see her go because civility had left,” he said with a laugh. “Being an old Marine, I’d give them hell, you know. I wouldn’t violate diplomatic standards, but I didn’t put up with much … from them.”
While in Jamaica, Cooper said he was moved by the daily struggle of the island’s people, who dealt with hunger, poverty and violence. He worked to improve their lives.
“I’d see these little children and I’d want to bring five or 10 of them home with me,” he said. “I worked to do some good things and some good things we did.”
For instance, he worked to improve the education system, and an organization that raises money for orphanages is still in existence today.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Cooper said. “We met a lot of great people, from Angela Bassett to Jimmy Carter, just on and on. It was sad, though, in many ways.”
The 2017 Griot Award
The Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail has named Cooper the third recipient of its Griot Award. DFFAAHT Board President Karlos Finley said in West African culture a griot is a storyteller who helps maintain the oral history, and Cooper fits that bill perfectly.
“Gen. Cooper, as a human being, is the kind of person we can look up to,” Finley said. “His intestinal fortitude and refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer is surely something our kids can look up to.”
Cooper will receive the award at a reception on Friday, March 10, from 6-9 p.m. at the History Museum of Mobile at 111 S. Royal St.
The trail itself consists of more than 40 sites in and around Mobile that are significant to African-American heritage and history. According to the trail’s brochure, its primary goal is to share Mobile’s multicultural history legacy through the following stories: the early Creoles de color; African survivors from the Clotilda; newly freed blacks who worshipped and built some of the state’s oldest churches; African-Americans who settled in an area named for Jefferson Davis, before being renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and civil rights advocates important to the desegregation of the city’s schools and private sector.
Finley said the trail now has a vehicle available to provide tours. Organizers are also working with the school system to get more students on the tour, as well as members of civic organizations.