Today as Americans reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my thoughts go to those African American Airmen who preceded Dr. King into battle, shining a light for civil rights within America's armed forces. African Americans have fought bravely in every conflict in our history, including the American Revolution. But it would take a world war and the heroic performance of a select few to truly break the color barrier and help American military forces live up to the promise in the Declaration of Independence: that all of us are created equal.
We know these pioneers today as the Tuskegee Airmen, about 14,000 Black soldiers who trained to fight for freedom overseas even though they didn't have true freedom here at home. They serve in all-Black units because even in the 1940s our nation hadn't yet properly integrated.
Only 992 of the 14,000 Tuskegee Airmen were pilots; the others performed the full range of tasks, from navigation and bombardiers to mechanics and administration, necessary to operate squadrons, wings, and groups. Just one year ago, eight of those pilots were still alive. Following the death Jan. 12 of Harold H. Brown, at this writing, just three of the heroes who flew the distinctive red-tailed P-51 Mustangs survive: Charles W. Cooper, George E. Hardy, and Harry T. Stewart Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. inspired and shamed Americans to face up to a racist past. His legacy lives on today, as does the spirit of those pioneering Tuskegee Airmen. America proved victorious in World War II because we leveraged all the talent within our reach. Let us recommit together to always remember we are many people, from many backgrounds and with many individiual perspectives. But we are one nation, united as one, and strongest together.
Bruce “Orville” Wright
President & CEO