J. Gary Cooper, a two-star general and the first African American to lead a Marine infantry company in combat, who later became an Alabama state lawmaker, an assistant secretary of the Air Force and an ambassador to Jamaica, died on April 27 at his home in Mobile, Ala. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Joli Claire Cooper.

Growing up in Alabama in the 1930s and ’40s, General Cooper overcame the harsh segregation of the Deep South to attain leadership roles in the military, corporate America and government, a sweeping arc that paralleled the paths of a generation of African Americans that pushed open doors during a time of profound racial change in the United States.

General Cooper was raised in Mobile in a rarefied world: the Black upper class of the pre-civil rights era. His family owned an insurance company and a funeral home. But money did not insulate him from the strictures of Jim Crow and its long racist shadow.

When his father tried to send him to an all-white Roman Catholic school, the local bishop barred him. When he returned to Mobile to run the family business after 12 years in the Marines, the Junior Chamber of Commerce rejected him as a member. And in 1973, when General Cooper went to the Mobile County Courthouse to obtain a marriage license, he was humiliated to find that Black couples were made to sign a “colored” register, separate from the one for white couples.

His initial escape from the segregated city of his youth came in 1954 when he won a scholarship to Notre Dame, where he was one of only a handful of Black freshmen in a class of 1,500.

“On campus there were no ‘colored’ or ‘white’ signs on the drinking fountains or bathroom doors,” General Cooper wrote in a reminiscence published in Notre Dame magazine in 2014. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”


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