The late Johnnie Johnson was already a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Boogie Woogie Hall of Fame. Monday at the National Blues Museum in downtown St. Louis, Johnson became the latest recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress.
Usually Johnson’s recognition came from his world class piano playing, but his latest honor came because of his World War II military service. Johnson was a Montford Point Marine, one of thousands of African Americans who endured racism and inspired social change by integrating the U.S. Marines Corps from 1942 to 1949. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill co-sponsored the legislation to recognize the Montford Point Marines for their military service under difficult circumstances. Montford Point was the segregated North Carolina boot camp where black Marines trained separately from whites.
“Johnnie Johnson signed up not only knowing he was risking his life for his country, but also that he would endure what most of the Montford Point Marines would endure: a lack of recognitions for their courage, not the embracing of them by fellow Marines many times, and cruelty many times,” said McCaskill during the ceremony.
Johnnie Johnson died in 2005, so it was a bittersweet medal presentation for Johnson’s family members.
“I wish he was here and I know he was here in spirit,” said Johnson’s widow Frances. “It makes me realize that he gave thought even before the music with his contribution to the country to help preserve what he wanted to do later in life.”
Johnson’s longtime friend Bill Stalnaker traveled from Fairmont, WV, where he was the founder of the Johnnie Johnson Jazz and Blues Festival.
“No way would I miss it. It’s quite an honor for him to get this Congressional Gold Medal.”
In 2012, the Montford Point Marines were collectively recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal and since then, the Montford Point Marine Association worked to identify and locate eligible recipients and their families.