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Carrying the Flag of Equal Opportunity into the 21st Century
Prepared Remarks of Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall , 88th Annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Convention, Pittsburgh, Pa.,, Wednesday, July 16, 1997

Defense Issues: Volume 12, Number 40-- Carrying the Flag of Equal Opportunity into the 21st Century Military people make huge sacrifices on behalf of their country. The least Americans can do is to ensure they're treated fairly, protected from discrimination and harassment, and given every opportunity to advance.


Volume 12, Number 40

Carrying the Flag of Equal Opportunity into the 21st Century

Prepared remarks by Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall at the 88th Annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Convention, Pittsburgh, Pa., July 16, 1997.

I can't tell you what an honor it is to be among you tonight and to be a part of the 22nd Annual Armed Services and Veterans Awards Dinner. This is truly a time of celebration as we recognize individuals and organizations who are leading the way to promote equal opportunity for military personnel.

I would like to personally thank Kweisi Mfume as president and chief executive officer of the NAACP and Myrlie Evers-Williams, chair of the board of directors. Thank you for your tremendous leadership of the NAACP and for inviting me to speak here tonight.

When I was tapped to head the Air Force, my husband pointed out I'm a woman of many firsts. I'm in gracious company tonight with Myrlie Evers-Williams, another woman of many firsts, who has taken her place as chair of the NAACP –- an achievement –- but more importantly, an opportunity. That is what we are here to focus on and to celebrate tonight. Ensuring people -- regardless of gender, race or religion -- are given that opportunity.

The military has a long history with the NAACP dating back to W.E.B. Dubois. Through his leadership, we learned that equal opportunity takes awareness, cooperation and effort: awareness to recognize problems of discrimination; cooperation to work together and effort to reinforce equal opportunity for all. Ever since then, the NAACP has been pointing out when we are not doing right, but also providing due credit when we are doing right.

We are very proud of our past Air Force recipients of the NAACP's Meritorious Service and Benjamin L. Hooks Distinguished Service Awards and their achievements in promoting equal opportunity: Gens. Daniel "Chappie" James in 1979, Bernard Randolph in 1987, Tom Hickey in 1990 and John Conaway in 1992; and the Hon. J. Gary Cooper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force, also in 1990. This year I am especially proud to see my chief of staff, Gen. Ron Fogleman, and my deputy for equal opportunity, Mr. Mickey Collins, receive these awards for their outstanding support of equal opportunity programs.

This year, the Air Force celebrates its golden anniversary -- 50 years of building the best air and space force in the world -- 50 years of maintaining the technological edge for the defense of our nation. These have been important national priorities throughout the Cold War, and they are still critical in today's uncertain world. We may not be at war, but neither are we at peace. This age of uncertainty demands we stay capable.

To stay capable, we need to not only look back and learn from our history, we need to look ahead and set our sights on where we need to go. We're looking to the future. We've outlined our vision for the 21st century. That vision is contained in a document called "Global Engagement." And while the only thing that's certain about the future is its uncertainty, we do know that technology will be the driving factor in the future of the Air Force.

That technology is very exciting, of course, but the common element in developing our technology, forming appropriate doctrine and employing that technology all comes down to the people who do those things. We're nowhere without our people. We need our people's skills, their insight, their expertise and their inventiveness to deal with cutting-edge technology.

The military is especially interested in recruiting, training and retaining people to succeed, because whether or not they succeed may very well be a matter of life or death. So we're looking for the best people -- people who honor Air Force traditions of service -- patriotism -- and a higher sense of purpose. People, regardless of gender, race or religion.

We are getting high quality people with good diversity. Let's look back to 50 years ago. The representation of African Americans in the Air Force officer corps comprised 0.4 percent and the enlisted force, 7 percent. Where are we today? African Americans represent 6 percent of the officers and 17 percent of the enlisted personnel.

We are now one of the nation's most racially diverse institutions. Very few other nationwide employers, public or private, can top that in terms of minorities in leadership roles. In fact, the military is a unique institution in that it teaches leadership. That is why we find that when corporations are looking for senior managers, they draw upon our veteran population. Folks like Bernard Randolph, now the chief executive officer at TRW, and former Air Force Capt. Bill Brooks, now a vice president at General Motors, retired Maj. Gen. Lucius Theus, director of the Wellness Group, Inc., and former captain in the Air Force, our own Assistant Secretary Rodney Coleman, who also came to us from a vice presidency at General Motors.

In addition to increased representation in the force, our understanding of the importance of the contributions African Americans have made is also increasing. In January, President Clinton presented Vernon J. Baker with the Medal of Honor, making him the first living African-American soldier who fought during World War II to receive the nation's highest citation for bravery. We rejoiced! His long-awaited honor told a story of a war hero -– and an African American.

Thanks to the work of many, including organizations such as the NAACP and Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., the entire nation, and military members in particular, are becoming more aware of the key role African Americans played in World War II. As air combatants, the Tuskegee Airmen were key to winning the war against the Axis powers. As Army officers and enlisted men, the ground and aircrews were key to fighting stereotype and racism. Yet even though we're tempted to see Tuskegee Airmen as the first chapter in the Air Force book of black service to the United States, that book certainly has many earlier chapters. So with each gathering like this of the NAACP, you continue what has truly been a long tradition of African Americans in service to their country. Let's take a look at that long history of duty.

In Boston, where I have lived for over 30 years, attached to a small patch of bricks is a brass plaque marking the location of the Boston Massacre of 1770. There, Crispus Attucks, a black man longing to keep his freedom, became a martyr of the American Revolution. Telling the story of the service of Americans of color in an 1851 manuscript, William C. Nell wrote: "(the Revolution and the War of 1812 were) dotted by the devotion and bravery of (black) Americans, despite the persecutions heaped Olympus-high upon them by their fellow countrymen. They have ever proved loyal and ready to worship or die, if need be, at Freedom's shrine."

Again, during the Civil War, with their very freedom at stake, black militiamen gave Union forces the ability to beat into surrender those who would categorically oppress an entire race.

After the Civil War, black units were finally included in the Regular Army. Serving in the American West and on the Great Plains, they picked up a venerable name: the Buffalo Soldiers. Though it doesn't seem to be common knowledge, all-black units kept Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders from losing the Battle of San Juan Hill and helped Brig. Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing pursue Pancho Villa in 1916.

That same year, a young man -- Eugene Bullard -- left Georgia and went to serve in France. He was sworn into the flying corps named the Lafayette Escadrille. But even though he fought so fiercely he earned the nickname "Black Swallow of Death," he was unable to escape prejudice. His flying career was cut short by white American pilots who refused to fly with him. Bullard remained in France and taught others to fly. Among his students was Bessie Coleman.

Despite growing up poor among 12 children, Bessie Coleman's thirst for knowledge propelled her to greater things -- she wanted to fly. I suppose it's no surprise to this audience that no one in the U.S. would teach a black woman to fly. With financial backing, she went to France and to Eugene Bullard. A licensed pilot, "Brave Bessie" flew thrilling stunts. Eventually, barnstorming would be the cause of her death, but not before she'd made nonbelievers see the power of a dream.

In the 1920s and '30s, thousands of Americans of all colors caught the aviation bug. And by 1940, the fight for the acceptance of blacks into the Army's air arm was 20 years old. But on Aug. 25, 1941, after repeated indignities and assumptions of incompetence, black Americans were finally given a chance to prove their stuff in the Army Air Corps.

At that moment, the Tuskegee Airmen opened a new chapter in the book which tells the tales of proud African-American patriots and our Air Force heritage. The men of the 332nd Fighter Group had two foes: racists in leadership who wanted very badly to see them fail and the Axis powers. They beat 'em both! The "Red Tails" batted a thousand –- they didn't lose one bomber to enemy hostilities. And they did that without stealth and without heat-seeking missiles. They did that with sheer skill, purpose of mind and courage of conviction.

They served proudly with the benefit of neither privilege nor courtesy. They had the benefit only of their convictions, their patriotism and a dream. Having received unfair treatment at home, perhaps more than any other Americans, all African Americans serving in World War II believed that in freedom, sooner or later they would be treated with dignity.

In January, their experiences were echoed in Vernon J. Baker's words as President Clinton pinned on his Medal of Honor. He said: "Give respect before you expect it, treat people the way you want to be treated, remember the mission, set the example and keep going."

Individuals like Gens. Chappie James and Ben O. Davis Jr., proud Tuskegee Airmen, and one of our newest four-star generals, Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton, commander of Air Education and Training Command and a proud Tuskegee Airman, carry the flag of these warriors from yesterday into today. You, the NAACP, will assure that the fight for a color-blind society, in a long tradition of service, carries on. But we must come back to today and the question we're posing to ourselves this year: How do we carry our heritage -- and the courageous contributions of African Americans -- into the future? I say, we need to keep doing what we've been doing so well.

You are acting as role models in your communities and most importantly, to the children of America's communities. I can think of no more important task. As mentors, you are among the ranks of the most noble of callings -- military, business leaders, teachers, ministers and parents.

You have in your personal histories and your victories over prejudice and your record of service inspired young people with the glory of their heritage. Our Air Force is recruiting. We want the finest, and your influence on young people's lives will last more than you may realize. Every year, the Air Force recruits 36,000 young men and women into the active force and another 20,000 into the reserves. In order to bring in that many people, we must do everything we can to enlarge the pool of qualified applicants. The public often seems to presume the worst about its generation of teen-agers. I don't buy that. I see parents working hard to raise fine young men and women. And I ask you to especially encourage our minority youth to carry a 226-year-old tradition of service into the next 50 years.

Military recruiting has pioneered equal opportunity. Our results show in the increasing proportion of African Americans in the force, especially among the officer corps. Over the past 20 to 30 years, other organizations have learned to expand opportunities to minorities from us. We think the Air Force offers young men and women career opportunity and the best imaginable opportunity to fulfill a career. We want young minority students to reach their highest potential -- and we would like them to consider opportunities in the Air Force -- for training, education and job skills.

We are sponsoring Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs across the country within public high schools to address the academic and other needs of at-risk inner-city youth. Two Philadelphia High School academies were recently featured at the president's Summit for America's Future. The Tuskegee Airmen have played an important role in sponsoring the West Philadelphia High School JROTC Career Academy, specializing in aviation and aerospace.

And what do the Air Force's next 50 years look like? They are exciting! The Air Force will continue the quiet revolution it has already started. We're preparing for our future -- moving further and further away from the Cold War way of doing business.

If we imagine ourselves peering into the next quarter century out of the cockpit of a Tuskegee Airman's P-51, the view is amazing! We'd see cutting-edge technology to let our people fulfill both the mission and their own potential at the same time. If you look at the technologies and strategies we're bringing on line, you get an idea of the priorities and challenges we anticipate in the decades ahead. Today, we're studying things like battle management, unmanned aerial vehicles, force protection, information warfare, space and the air expeditionary force concept. Those categories are very telling. They give us the operational capability to carry out the rapid, precise, agile and global nature of those core competencies we've spelled out in our corporate vision -- core competencies which will continue to guide us as the air and space force of the future evolves.

Above all, we know that for the long range we need the most dedicated, most skilled people. We have, and will continue to build, a force of professionals which gives us strength through their diversity. The Air Force is knit from strands of the very fabric of America. We gain knowledge and skill by drawing more deeply on the abilities of Americans of all races, ethnicities, religions, personal talents and family backgrounds.

Let me give you an example of the success of our forces. I think all will agree that our mission in Bosnia has been a success. The former Yugoslavia was a nation experiencing the very sorts of atrocities which drove you to fight in World War II. Proudly, the U.S. diplomatic efforts and military capabilities brought peace to the Balkans.

When I visited Bosnia last year, I saw a terrific contrast -- on the one hand, a country pillaged by war between ethnicities; on the other, a skilled American military whose effectiveness comes from its diversity. Troops from different American services, different parts of the United States, of various races and creeds, united to help a country see that diversity is a strength, not an excuse for war.

Our enlisted forces in particular -- a multiracial force of unequaled professionalism -- were in a league of their own. The militaries of the other nations participating in that effort have looked to us to help them train and set standards for their own enlisted forces. That is strength which comes from acceptance -- which comes from understanding that the other person may look different or pray differently, but that he or she is on the same, all-star team.

Unfortunately, the military has been marred in recent years by a few extremists who found their way into the ranks. But we in the Air Force know that realizing our vision demands first that we ensure that the forces of divisiveness aren't permitted to affect our cohesion. Racist thought is incompatible with military effectiveness. Our vigilance is high -- we refuse to tolerate hate.

Let me conclude, then, by reinforcing a theme Bill Clinton used in his 1992 campaign: "We don't have people to waste." The Air Force has put that theme into practice. Military people make huge sacrifices on behalf of their country. The least we can do is to make sure that they're treated fairly, protected from discrimination and harassment, and given every opportunity to advance. We have become the best air and space force in the world because we have extraordinarily good people. You have helped us do that. So thank you. You have reserved an honored place in Air Force history. Let us carry the flag of equal opportunity for all into our the next 50 years.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at 8 2