Harrison County

One of the first black Marines, a Gulfport World War II vet, says he still deals with racism

David Potts Sr., approaching 94 years of age, has endured racism all his life, including while he served in World War II as one of the nation's first black Marines.

He says the country's laws have changed, but racism persists because more hearts need to change. He has harrowing stories of discrimination during his military service and from recent times.

Potts said he was pulled over three years ago in Long Beach and treated rudely by a white police officer, who wound up telling Potts not to linger in the left lane, where he was driving to turn.

The officer checked Potts' license, then growled, "Why haven't you got a record downtown?"

Potts and his nephew, who had been out fishing, eventually went on their way without a ticket.

Potts received a personal apology in 2012 over lunch with George Schloegel, then mayor of Gulfport, because of the way a white police officer treated Potts after he returned from the Pacific theater in 1945.

On Saturday, Potts will lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the Coast Symphony Orchestra's Sounds by the Sea in Jones Park. Schloegel, who has become a friend, will be there with him.

Racism was flagrant and expected when Potts returned from war as a member of the Montford Point Marines, the nation's first group of black Marines serving in a segregated military.

He was walking to the store for his wife, wearing his Montford Point Marines cap, when a Gulfport officer pulled up on 25th Avenue.

"He said, 'Boy, come here,' " Potts recalled. "I walked over there and he told me, 'Take that cap off your head before I get out there with a stick and knock it off.' "

Potts told the Sun Herald: "The first thing that got into my mind was they don't send boys to war, they send men to war," he said. But he didn't say anything. There was no use.

It would be 70 years after the Montford Point Marines started training in 1942 before they were recognized for their World War II service with congressional gold medals.

By then, most of the 20,000 Marines had died, but Potts and 400 others — all well into their 80s — made the trip to Washington. They were greeted by the Marine Corps commandment and Senate and House leaders.

On the flights to and from Washington, Potts encountered many children, other civilians and active-duty military personnel who shook his hand, wished him well or had their pictures taken with him. The trip was a source of great pride for him.

"It was quite an honor," Potts told the Sun Herald in 2012, "but I thought it was a little late, coming after 70 years."

The black Marines were not allowed into combat. Instead, they served white troops as cooks, drivers and in other secondary jobs. Still, Potts said, they died when Japanese suicide bombers blew up ships the Marines were loading or unloading.

Potts was a driver mostly, hauling supplies to battle zones. It was unquestionably a dangerous job.

"It was only for the pure of heart to serve then," Potts said. "You had to fight both the system and the Japanese."

After his service, Potts went to work at the Gulfport Veterans Administration as a janitor, one of the few jobs open to him. He was later a backup truck driver at the VA, but when a full-time job came open, he was passed over for a white man.

He turned in his license to drive the truck and worked with women at a lower wage as a seamstress. Potts also trained in appliance repair and ran Potts Home Appliances until he was 79.

His father, a sharecropper looking for opportunity, had moved the family to Gulfport in 1929, when Potts was 5. Two white female Freedom Riders stayed at the Potts' house during the struggle for voting rights. He and neighbors patrolled with guns, fearful of an ambush by angry whites.

He remembers poll taxes and being tested with questions before he could vote. Despite all the humiliation and oppression he has suffered, Potts said he is a free man at age 93 and glad to be an American.

"I was born into the system, and that's all I knew of this country," he said. "I dealt with it up until the present time — still dealing with it.

"I do love my country, because I fought for my country. I was called to defend my country, and I did it faithfully, with no resentment."

Portions of this story were originally published in the Sun Herald in 2012.

Sounds by the Sea

The Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra will host Sounds by the Sea — with pre-concert activities beginning at 6 p.m. and a concert honoring the military and families at 7:30 p.m. — Saturday at Jones Park in Gulfport and Sunday at Beach Park in Pascagoula. The annual Memorial Day weekend concert features patriotic music followed by fireworks displays.

Parking in Gulfport will be north of U.S. 90, with crossing locations marked by police and complimentary CTA shuttles from the parking garage at 15th Street and 21st Avenue. In Pascagoula, transport will be available from The Point and Ingalls East Bank on Ingalls Avenue.