Raymond Allen Murray Jr., one of the Montford Point Marines who broke color barrier in the service in WWII, dead at 99
Despite being treated as “less than a human being,” the members of the segregated unit “fought gallantly,” says James T. Averhart, president of the National Montford Point Marine Association. “This is not just Black history. It is not just Marine Corps history. It is American history.”
One of the nation’s first Black marines, Raymond Murray Jr. was awarded the congressional gold medal for his World War II service with the Montford Point Marines.
But, to the boxers he coached in Chicago, he was a hero for other reasons.
Mr. Murray, who died of cancer last month at his Chatham home, was “always a father figure,” said former pro fighter Jeffrey Mason.
When Mr. Murray asked the boxers he trained at Fuller Park if they were doing their running, he told them they’d only be hurting themselves if they lied they’d done it, Mason said: “He’d say, ‘Son, this is not for me you’re doing this. You can’t cheat the man in the mirror.’ ”
When one of his fighters got in trouble and ended up at the Cook County Jail, he visited and tried to get him sent to a boot camp, according to Mr. Murray’s wife Esther: “He saw Ray come in there. He just cried and said his own father wouldn’t have come in to help him.”
“He showed me how to carry myself,” said Michael Hood, 58, who started training with Mr. Murray when he was 17. “He said boxing shows you how to think. He always said think before you did anything — think and figure out what’s wrong.”
If old boxers were down on their luck, “He was bringing fighters to the gym, making sure they had somewhere to go,” said James Dixon, a retired Chicago Park District boxing coach. “If they needed something, he would go in his pocket.”
And if the athletes he coached complained, Mason said, he’d remind them how hard things had been for the Montford Point Marines, saying: “ ‘You’re crying about how you’re working out, but we had to carry heavy military equipment and guns, and bullets were flying at us.’ ”
Mr. Murray, 99, was one of the 400 or so surviving members of the 20,000 Black marines who trained at North Carolina’s Montford Point camp, which was established to train African American recruits. It operated from 1942 to 1949 and integrated the Marine Corps, according to retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph H. Geeter III, spokesman for the National Montford Point Marine Association.
The Montford Point Marines “fought against the enemy during World War II while they also fought for their civil rights and the respect of their fellow Americans,” then-Marine Corps Commandant James F. Amos said when its members were awarded the congressional gold medal in 2011.
Mr. Murray was buried in his Marine dress blues, according to his wife and his stepdaughter LaDonna Bonner.
“This man was living history,” said Mike Joyce, the owner of Chicago’s Celtic Boxing Club and a boxing coach at Leo High School.
In 1943, Mr. Murray, a Wendell Phillips High School alum, enlisted and reported to Montford Point, the segregated base outside Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The base was so rudimentary the men “had to clear the grounds and build their own camp,” Geeter said. “The mosquitoes were terrible, the snakes. When the marines would wake up in the morning, they could see the bear tracks all around their buildings.”
Many of the men’s white drill instructors resented them, Geeter said.
“These men came to the camp in hopes of doing something good for their country,” said James T. Averhart, a retired marine and president of the National Montford Point Marine Association. “They [were] treated in a manner less than a human being.”
Mr. Murray, a steward, rifleman and ultimately a sergeant, served in combat against Japanese forces at the Battle of Okinawa.
The Montford Point Marines fought at Okinawa, Saipan and Iwo Jima, Amos wrote, “with such tenacity, valor and distinction that the commandant at the time was moved to declare” they “are no longer on trial. They are marines — period. Their actions reflected the finest attributes of the ‘leatherneck’ fighting spirit and blazed the trail for generations of African Americans in the Marine Corps.”
“They fought gallantly,” Averhart said. “This is not just Black history. It is not just Marine Corps history. It is American history.”
Mr. Murray boxed in the service and won a featherweight title in a Yokohama, Japan, competition among troops serving in the Pacific theater, according to his family.
He sent his Marine Corps pay home to his mother to help her with his seven siblings, his stepdaughter said.
After the war, he mixed Canfield’s pop at the old A.J. Canfield Company bottler in Chicago and was a driver for what’s now PepsiCo, his family said.
Mr. Murray once gave boxing lessons to hockey star Al Secord when Secord was playing for the Blackhawks.
“I thought I wasn’t doing very well with my fights in the NHL, and I needed a tune-up, and he got me back on track,’’ said Secord, who’s now a pilot for American Airlines.
Even though Mr. Murray was in his 60s when they met, Secord said, “You knew not to mess with him just in the way he carried himself.”
Secord remembers Mr. Murray bringing him to Chicago’s Montford Point Marine Association, where he said, “I had a great time, and some of the ladies were teaching me to dance.”
Mr. Murray liked to dress up every day because he wanted to be ready for whoever he might meet.
In addition to coaching boxing for the Chicago Park District, he worked as a Democratic precinct captain in the sixth ward.
He knew Mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer and boxers Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Ernie Terrell and Mike Tyson. According to his family, when he met Barack Obama early in his political career, he told him: “You’re smart enough to be president.”
Mr. Murray made copies of the photo taken of him with Obama and would carry them in his pocket to give to people he met.
“He would tell us stories of meeting Joe Louis,” said Sharon Stokes-Parry, a marine veteran who says Mr. Murray “taught me how to jab.”
She’s president of the Chicago Montford Point Marine Association, 7011 S. Vincennes Ave., which includes five original Montford Point Marines among its members.
In addition to his wife and stepdaughter, Mr. Murray is survived by his sister Frances Hubbard.
One of his favorite sayings, Stokes-Parry said, was “God loves you, and so do I.”