STOCKBRIDGE, GA -- The raucous applause in the middle school auditorium was for Southern Nixon, Jr. -- an 85 year old former Marine -- who has quietly lived with a milestone dating back to his own teenage years.
In 1945, before the armed forces desegregated, Nixon enlisted in the Marine Corps. The Marines sent him to North Carolina -- but not to boot camp at Camp Lejeune. He went to a place called Montford Point, which trained the Corps' African-American recruits.
"I was surprised, especially when I went to Montford Point, and knew that I wasn't on the main base," Nixon said in an interview. "(Equipment) was like a hand me down thing. The training, everything was subpar, I'd say. "
The Montford Point recruits "were Marines, but they weren't even allowed to go out in town and they were segregated," said Sgt. Maj. Ron Whittington, who was with Nixon at the auditorium. "And it was a shame."
Nixon served as a private first class in a segregated Marine Corps unit until World War II ended. In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the armed forces desegregated.
Last year Congress voted to honor the Montford Point Marines with the Congressional Gold medal. Southern Nixon Jr. received his medal in a room full of people his great grandchildren's age.
"For the Marine Corps, these are our Tuskegee airmen," said Whittington. "As an African American he paved the way for me. I'm standing on his shoulders."
Southern Nixon Jr. accepted the honor at Woodland Middle school, where the octogenarian works as a nutritionist. He says he may return to work Wednesday wearing a conspicuous new accessory.