I was born on 20 September 1940 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the “Colored” wing of Erlanger Hospital. On my birth certificate, my race was listed as “Colored.” It still is.
My father was a day laborer and my mother was a domestic maid and cook. I was raised in the “Colored” housing projects of Chattanooga and Cedartown, Georgia. When I was 13, my father deserted my mother, me, and my four younger siblings. My family survived on public assistance, food handouts, and my mother’s small income.
My mother taught me to read before I started school, which was quite an accomplishment as she had only three or four years of formal schooling herself. I attended all-black public schools in a highly segregated society, and with my mother’s encouragement, I became an excellent student, but I dropped out in the tenth grade to find work as a day laborer and picking fruits and crops.
At 17, I enlisted in the Marine Corps (Active Reserves) and began what turned out to be a 30-year career.