JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Rev. Harry Givens admitted Friday he was feeling a little emotional.
“I was proud I was one of the first black Marines, and after 50 some-odd years, I finally got recognized for it,” he said.
More than 66 years after leaving the Marine Corps, Givens on Friday was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, in recognition of his military service. He belongs to an elite group of black soldiers — the first to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II — who collectively were awarded the medal last year.
“I am proud that they finally have made the recognition,” Givens said, surrounded by his friends, family and other military veterans at Spring River Christian Village. “And to have this crowd here — it’s amazing. I’m just overwhelmed.”
Givens joined the Marine Corps in 1944 and attended recruit training at the segregated Montford Point Camp. He was stationed in the South Pacific during his two-year career with the Marines and was honorably discharged in July 1946. Now 86, Givens has spent the past 38 years as pastor of Unity Missionary Baptist Church in Joplin.
Givens has said that one of his biggest challenges as a Marine was enduring mistreatment at the hands of white Marines. He previously told the Globe that the training the black Marines received went beyond standard Marine policies.
“I went through things I never thought I’d go through,” he said Friday. “I can’t describe what we had to go through in the boot camp. Being in the Marine Corps, I wouldn’t take $1 million for it (the experience), and I wouldn’t take $1 million to go back.”
But the military has come far since those days, he said.
Raymon Thomas agrees. Thomas, who was baptized by Givens and has attended his church, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1958 and served for 20 years. He credited Givens for being part of a group of soldiers that made his own military career — which he said he’d “do all over again” — possible more than a decade later.
“They paved the way,” he said of Givens and his comrades. “Without people like Rev. Givens, I never would have had the chance to go in there and prosper.”
Melodee Colbert-Kean, the mayor of Joplin and a member of Givens’ church, said she has known Givens “almost as long as I’ve been alive.” She became emotional as she described Givens as a “second father.” She said she was proud of his recognition.
“This just has a lot of meaning for me because my son just joined the Marines,” she said. “I just hope one day he can go and have that respect he (Givens) has garnered not only in the military, but in the community, in his personal life and in business.”
Friday’s award presentation also included a cake-cutting ceremony in celebration of the Marine Corps’ birthday. Following tradition, the first piece of cake was given to the oldest Marine present — that was Givens — and then was passed to the youngest Marine present — Sgt. Benjamin Callahan, of St. Louis — as a symbol of passing the knowledge of the Marines from one generation to the next.
“It was a privilege for me to come and assist in presenting this award to him,” said Callahan, who enlisted in 2007. “To actually be able to meet a Montford Point Marine is a rare honor.”
As part of the award presentation, First Sgt. David Haley read a letter from President Barack Obama recognizing the Montford Point Marines, calling them “heroes (who) have paved the way for future warriors.”