WASHINGTON, D.C. - I have a dream," said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Before King famously spoke those words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, more than 900 African American men had undertaken a mission to serve and defend their country during World War II, when they were not openly permitted to do so. Those men were recently celebrated during a special ceremony.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Darren McDew, the Air Force District of Washington commander, along with Jim Pryde, an original Tuskegee Airman, laid a wreath July 31 at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., to honor all Tuskegee Airmen who participated in aircrew, ground crew and operations support training in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the U.S. armed forces. Five of the original Tuskegee Airmen were present for the ceremony.
During the ceremony, McDew distinguished the many monuments and locations visible from the Air Force Memorial, where historic moments in American history have been made.
"From our vantage point, we can see the Lincoln Memorial, built to honor President Abraham Lincoln and where Dr. King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech," said the general during his speech.
"We see the steps of the U.S. Capitol where President Obama took the oath of office. We see Arlington Cemetery, where many of our nation's heroes are buried. We can see the Pentagon, where seeds of doubt closed the door on many good men; but, where ultimately many more doors were opened. As I look to these landmarks, I realize that this is where the incredible journey began."
McDew went on to talk about the importance of words and the impact they have had on American history.
"We all know that words and their meanings are important; but let me remind you just what impact the right words, or a turn of phrase, can have on the course of history," he said. "One hundred fifty years ago, President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address. He used just over 270 words to shape a nation; to force the idea of civil rights and equality to the forefront of our national identity.
"One hundred years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, used 1,058 words to boldly remind the conscience of this great and mighty nation that each of her citizens deserved the right to realize their full potential and that each had earned the right to realize the promise of the American dream," McDew continued.
"And only a few short years ago, 39 words ushered in a new president," he said. "In just 39 words we witnessed the fulfillment of part of Dr. King's dream. We now live in a nation where a person can be judged simply on the content of their character. Yes, President Lincoln, all men are, in fact, created equal."
In closing, he gave thanks to the Tuskegee Airmen for their contributions to America and the armed forces.
"On this, the 70th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen experience, I thought it fitting to invoke President Lincoln, Dr. King and President Obama, because their words embody what the Tuskegee Airmen stood for, fought for, and many died for," he said.
"Seventy years is but a moment. Yet in that moment, a group of determined individuals boldly charted a course that would forever change our nation and our Air Force. ... We look with pride to the extraordinary impact you have made on our nation; your legendary skills in combat; your strength of character in the face of bias and ignorance; and your remarkable contribution to the integration of the armed services."
During World War II, African Americans in many states still were subject to racist Jim Crow laws. The American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subject to racial discrimination, both within and outside the military. Despite these adversities, they trained and flew with distinction.
After President Harry S. Truman ended segregation in the military with Executive Order 9981 in 1948, the veteran Tuskegee Airmen found themselves in high demand throughout the newly-formed U.S. Air Force.
Tuskegee Airmen Inc. is an organization dedicated to keeping alive the history, achievements and importance of the original Tuskegee Airmen. The organization exists primarily to motivate and inspire young Americans to become participants in society and the nation's democratic process, said retired Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson, TAI president and member of the Heart of America Chapter in Kansas.
The TAI organization is hosting their 40th annual convention Aug. 3 to 7 at the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, was among scheduled speakers there Friday.