by Andrew Garda

By the time James Brunson had turned 101 years on May 10, he had seen a century of the civil rights struggle.

One of the most impactful periods came during World War II when he served for four years from 1942 to 1946, both overseas in the Philippines and at home in the southern United States.

Like any black man in the military during that time period, Brunson faced systemic racism both in and out of the service. His unit, the 826 Amphibious Quartermaster Unit, was segregated, meaning every man in the unit was black and separated from soldiers who were white. Often, black soldiers were not used in combat, instead being put in support roles as drivers, cooks and quartermasters.

Black soldiers were not allowed to sit and eat with white soldiers, whether it was in the South, where Brunson lived at the time and where he spent several years in the armed forces, or in the northern states. 

Occasionally, even prisoners of war were given more power.

For example, when Brunson was a driver transporting German POWs, they felt he was driving recklessly because the road was rough. The prisoners complained to Brunson’s commanders.

“I got suspended for a week,” he said.

James Brunson, pictured here with his younger brother O’Neal, turned 101 this year. His brother, who was also in WW2, will be 98 years old in June.
Courtesy of the Brunson family

Off base, Brunson was familiar with the reality of Jim Crow Laws, since he had lived in the South his whole life. He had been born in Edgefield, South Carolina, but moved to Georgia as a baby. He lived there for many years in various towns throughout the state. 

Living in the South didn’t mean it didn’t bother him to see signs on a bus that required him to sit or stand in the back of the bus, even when in his military uniform.

Once, Brunson said, he noticed seats open up in front of the “colored section” and despite objections by the bus driver, decided he would sit.  There was a white officer behind him when he sat, who tapped Brunson on the shoulder and told him he knew how Brunson felt because the southerners didn’t like a northerner like himself, because they came south and “spoiled our [Negroes].” 

“We give them what they need,” Brunson recalled the man saying he was told by southerners. “We don’t need you to come down here and tell these [Negroes] what to do. You spoil them.”

A picture of James Brunson as a young man. Brunson turned 101 earlier this month.
Courtesy of the Brunson family

As much as that white officer might feel he understood Brunson, he couldn’t really. After all, while he might be a northerner, the officer was still a white man.

Brunson would eventually marry and move to New Jersey. He worked for Ford Motor Company and was among the many individuals who were bussed by his union to see Dr. Martin Luther King speak in Washington DC. 

Even though there were threats that the buses would be blown up, Brunson went anyway.

Despite his experiences while in the military and living in the South, Brunson is proud of his country and his service. Things have changed for the better, he said. He lives in a neighborhood with neighbors from many backgrounds and with many skin colors, and he no longer has to worry about where he sits on a bus.

“We’ve had a black president,” said his daughter, Sharon Cockey. “People can go to schools without having dogs sicced on them or high-powered hoses.”

“It’s like a new world now, than when I was serving,” Brunson said. “There’s so much [that is] different.”

While there is still much to do, individuals like Brunson are why we’ve come as far as we have.

Montclair Local relies on reader support so we can keep reporting the news and events that matter to Montclair. Become a Member and be a part of supporting your local nonprofit news organization!
Become a Member