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First Lady pays tribute to Tuskegee Airmen

Harry C. Alford | 5/19/2015, 1 p.m.
Last week, I received an email from my friend, NNPA News Service Editor-in-Chief George E. Curry. It was a White ...
First Lady Michelle Obama participates in the Tuskegee University class of 2015 commencement ceremony in Tuskegee, Ala., May 9, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

— Last week, I received an email from my friend, NNPA News Service Editor-in-Chief George E. Curry. It was a White House press release and a copy of First Lady Michelle Obama’s May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University. My first thought was: Why is George sending me this?

For some reason, I stopped everything to read it. I almost fell out of my chair when the First Lady started talking about our famous Tuskegee Airmen. George knew that as a veteran and son-in-law of one of the first four Tuskegee Airmen, Charles DeBow, it fills me with great pride every time I hear something about these heroes.

The first lady said:

“And I’d like to begin today by reflecting on that history – starting back at the time when the Army chose Tuskegee as the site of its airfield and flight school for black pilots.

“Back then, black soldiers faced all kinds of obstacles. There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men’s brains were smaller than white men’s. Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were ‘childlike,’ ‘shiftless,’ ‘unmoral and untruthful,’ and as one quote stated, ‘if fed, loyal and compliant.’”

“So while the Airmen selected for this program were actually highly educated – many already had college degrees and pilots licenses – they were presumed to be inferior. During training, they were often assigned to menial tasks like housekeeping or landscaping. Many suffered verbal abuse at the hands of their instructors. When they ventured off base, the white sheriff here in town called them “boy” and ticketed them for the most minor offenses. And when they finally deployed overseas, white soldiers often wouldn’t even return their salutes.

“Just think about what that must have been like for those young men. Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day – flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart. Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody – as if their very existence meant nothing.

“Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings. But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely – surely – they could eat at a lunch counter together. Surely their kids could go to school together.

“You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a ‘double duty’ – one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans.

“One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way. He said that a takeoff was – in his words – ‘a never-failing miracle’ where all ‘the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.’