J. Gary Cooper began his remarkable journey of service to the United States in 1958. While serving in Vietnam in 1966, Cooper became the first African American Marine Corps officer to lead an infantry company into combat. After serving as an active duty Marine Corps officer from 1958-1970, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve and in 1971, became the first African American to command a Marine reserve unit.
Cooper was born on October 2, 1936, in Lafayette, Louisiana. He grew up in the “Down the Bay” section of Mobile, Alabama. He attended Most Pure Heart of Mary High School where he graduated in 1954. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Notre Dame and was one of only three African Americans in his 1958 class of 1,500.
While at college, he joined The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He graduated with a degree in finance and was commissioned second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He was promoted to the first lieutenant and rose to captain in 1963.
Cooper later reached the rank of major general and earned the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Silver and Bronze Stars. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush nominated, and the Senate confirmed, Cooper as the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and the Environment.
In 1976, he co-founded Commonwealth National Bank in Mobile, Alabama, the first minority-owned and operated a bank in Alabama.
Along with John LeFlore, Cooper was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, from Mobile since the reconstruction. In 1978, Alabama Governor George Wallace appointed Cooper Commissioner of the Alabama State Department of Human Resources.
In 1984, he was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first African American to attain the rank of general from the Marine infantry ranks.