By Michael Thomason / Contributing writer
Marine Corps Gen. Gary Cooper is a leading member of a prominent African-American family in Mobile. Since his birth in 1936, he has served his community, state and nation in many ways and in many offices. Kendal Weaver’s biography covers his fascinating life beautifully in a book I challenge you to put down once you have started reading it.
People from this part of Alabama will find it especially interesting as it tells the story of Mobile’s last seven decades from a fresh angle, and does it well. As Cooper is part of the African-American elite here, we learn what it was like to be an ambitious and hardworking black Mobilian and American since the ‘40s.
It is more than a biography of a single man; it is the story of his remarkable family. It also discusses the people he knew and worked with, whether here or at Notre Dame University, in the Marine Corps in the United States and Vietnam, political service in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., and as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica. While he was at it, Cooper was a very successful local businessman, too. As I read this book, I wondered how he had the time to do all he has done and earn the respect and friendship of so many different people from all walks of life.
“Ten Stars” is a well written, accurate and optimistic presentation of Cooper’s life and that of his family. Author Weaver, who worked for The Associated Press in Montgomery for most of his long career, has been careful to document his story. He says it is not an “academic biography,” but in many ways it is. The story he tells is researched and absolutely believable. I think most academics would be proud to do as well.
The book is even-handed and almost gentle at times as it relates Cooper’s story, from Jim Crow Mobile to being a pioneer in destroying racial and gender barriers in the U.S. He did so gracefully but unequivocally, whether in the rice paddies of Vietnam leading a Marine infantry company (the first black officer in the Corps to do so), in his home town or in the Alabama Legislature, and in the Pentagon.
A quiet and friendly man with a famous sense of humor, Cooper was well liked and very effective as he did his job, wherever he was. At 6-foot-6, he was hard to miss (though the Viet Cong did often). He always wore his uniform well and insisted that others do the same. Appearance was always important, but only because it helped him command the respect and obedience he deserved. No matter where he was or what he was doing he was unmistakably a Marine! Sometimes this proved difficult for his children when they were growing up, but there was no relaxation in his standards of appearance, performance and achievement.
As people in Mobile and on the Eastern Shore read this book, they will recognize name after name, black and white, whether in reference to his childhood friend Prof. Joaquin Holloway Jr., his fellow state legislator “Sonny” Callahan, local political leader (and Catholic) Gen. Joe Langan or dozens of other familiar names with whom he worked.
This is a uniquely Mobile story. The Cooper family has produced generations of well educated and politically active leaders such as the General and his younger brother, A.J. Cooper, the first African-American mayor of Prichard. Several others have served in the Marine Corps.
While many of his children and grandchildren have moved away to pursue their careers, the General still lives on Palmetto Street in the Oakleigh Garden District, not far from Down the Bay where he grew up but far from the Jim Crow world of his youth. He has remained loyal to the city and is proud to be able to retire at home, spending time with childhood friends such as Dr. Holloway or keeping an eye on business interests. These include the Christian Benevolent Funeral Home, which has been in business since 1928, and the Commonwealth National Bank, whose founders he assisted nearly 40 years ago. He is still an active manager of both companies.
Due to the demands of Cooper’s professional and business life, his personal life has seen a few bumps. He has been married three times and did not take easily to the demands of parenthood when he found himself raising his children as a single parent. Born and raised a Catholic, his relationship with the church in Mobile was strained after Archbishop Thomas Joseph Toolen, a staunch segregationist, expelled younger brother Billy for attempting to integrate McGill Institute.
Toolen also refused to allow any of Cooper’s brothers and sisters to enroll in any parochial schools in the archdiocese. All of this happened just after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 declared the doctrine of separate but equal in public education unconstitutional. Cooper and his family never forgot that or its impact on A.J. Cooper Sr., who eventually nearly went bankrupt sending his children to schools and colleges outside the South. In the end, his father committed suicide.
As a businessman and a Marine officer, Cooper was conservative in most areas, except race relations. He fought in college and in the Corps against racial barriers and racist attitudes and practices and changed many minds. Believing in true equality of opportunity, he demanded that the Marines enlist more African-Americans and promote the best to the officer corps. The Marines had a decidedly racist history and Cooper took this on and changed it. It took years, but the changes stuck.
He was very involved with the Montford Point Marines, men who had been trained in a segregated boot camp there from World War II until 1949. These men were assigned servile jobs after graduating and only one was ever promoted to the officer corps. Their story has been told in an excellent book and TV documentary by Melton McLaurin, once a professor of history at the University of South Alabama and a noted Southern historian. The Cooper story reached everywhere, from Down the Bay to Vietnam and Washington, D.C., and beyond.
Weaver tells this remarkable story so very well that it deserves to be widely read and appreciated — nowhere more than in Cooper’s hometown, Mobile.
Kendal Weaver, “Ten Stars: The African American Journey of J. Gary Cooper — Marine General, Diplomat, Businessman and Politician” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, 2016), ISBN 978-1-58838-324-2; 352 pp., $29.95.