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Address to Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. 29th National Convention
Remarks as Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon , San Antonio, Texas , Friday, August 11, 2000

Thank you, General [Lester] Lyles [Commander, Air Force Materiel Command], for the introduction. It’s a great opportunity to be here today and to participate with this group. Lieutenant Colonel Clark Kent [Squadron Commander, Randolph Air Force Base], I asked him, is that his real name. He said it’s his Air Force handle. [Laughter] He introduced some of the very senior people here at the head table. But I also see that our Reserve and Guard leaders, not only from the Pentagon but from other installations around the corner, around the country—in General [Daniel] James’ [III] case, it is around the corner—are here, but I would ask all of our military people who are in attendance to just stand for one second. [Applause]

Forty years ago, President Kennedy challenged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. The men and women in uniform who just stood are the embodiment of that commitment. Indeed, we are proud of their service, whether they are here with us in San Antonio this afternoon or in Korea or Kosovo or Bosnia or Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, with so many luminaries here and so many senior general officers, I would like to briefly just introduce the [Tuskegee Airmen’s] Military Affairs Luncheon Committee and ask them to stand, because they’ve put in a lot of work here today, too. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Ward; Colonel Doc War; Lieutenant Colonel William Clark Kent; Major Derek Green; and Major Cheryl Malone. [Applause] Logistics are important and organization. So thank you very much.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. It’s truly an honor to share a dais with a group of men and women who have done so much not only for the security of America and the protection of its interests abroad, but for progress and social justice here at home.

Together the Tuskegee Airmen and the Organization of Black Airline Pilots have much to be proud of, and it's wonderful to come here and be reminded of how much you've accomplished in schools, in communities, and for the young men and women who serve in uniform, and to see how much energy and enthusiasm you are bringing to your new endeavors.

So for that, I want to thank you for the honor of appearing before a group, the Tuskegee Airmen, that in the 20th Century -- which has been a century of aviation, of the exploration of space -- the Tuskegee Airmen rightfully stand high on that list of accomplishment.

The New York Times on page five, 4th of July, 1943, ran this article. Dateline, Allied Headquarters, in North Africa. Quote, "An American Negro fighter squadron escorting bombers yesterday over Sicily destroyed a Focke-Wulfe 190 to score the formation’s first victory. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the airfield to congratulate First Lieutenant Charles Hall of Brazil, Indiana when he returned after shooting down the plane. The Commander in Chief also congratulated Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., of Washington, D.C., squadron commander, on the unit’s first victory."

The article goes on to give Lieutenant Hall’s description of the encounter, and in the very last paragraph it stated that he attended the Illinois State Teachers College for three years, but left there to begin his flight training in 1941, and it gave his age -- 21 years old.

I cannot help but think what a proud and triumphant day that must have been for all the Tuskegee Airmen, for so many of you who had trained so long and so hard, to have defied the odds and the predictions of the critics and the cynics, and to have persisted despite an oppressive climate. There was the proof in The New York Times, complete with a handshake from General Eisenhower. A young African American, a Tuskegee Airman scored a victory at the age of 21 that most men could never accomplish in their entire lives. And America learned about it appropriately, on the 4th of July. [Applause]

That qualifies as a great milestone for all Americans because it is one of those simple occasions when an undeniable fact puts to lie the myths and the irrational fears that fueled America’s racism.

I believe that is why those of you here have had such a powerful and positive effect on our country. You said, "We have the talent. Just give us one chance, and we will show you a truth so strong about our character, about our courage, about our commitment to our nation that it can never be denied." Then you demonstrated that truth. You held it up for all Americans, and it was a truth so powerful that it still echoes today.

As you know, two years ago the United States made right a wrong and awarded General [Benjamin O.] Davis his fourth star ... [Applause] ... which was so long in coming, but was so well deserved. President Clinton said at his presentation—and Colonel [Charles] McGee [retired, President of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.] was one of the people to speak in the program that afternoon at the White House—President Clinton said in his presentation, "When the doors were shut on him, he knocked again and again until finally they opened. Until his sheer excellence and determination made it impossible to keep them closed. And once the doors were open, he made sure that they stayed open for others to follow."

Then Secretary [of Defense, William S.] Cohen said, "Few did more than General Davis to prove that black and white Americans could not only serve together, indeed that white soldiers could serve under a black superior, but that they could succeed together."

I believe that the same could be said of every one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Each of you in your own way has kept the doors open for others to follow. Every year by sharing your history and giving your time and talent you teach another generation of Americans about the high price of freedom, and about the importance of fairness and dignity and opportunity. And your work continues, whether it be through scholarships, grants, mentoring programs, or countless other ways that you are touching the lives of young people throughout the country.

The examples of your dedication and perseverance made a difference half a century ago in places ranging from Tuskegee, Alabama to Selfridge, Michigan to North Africa to Italy, and it continues to make a difference today in ways that few could have imagined when they read that article on July 4, 1943. While we are familiar with the history and all that has been written about your exploits and struggles here in America and over North Africa and Europe, I found out something very interesting the other day. If you were to go to the cutting edge of information technology today, the Internet, and search for the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, you would see the breadth of your influence in more than 7,000 pages of information that are on the World Wide Web. [Applause]

I think that is a tribute not only to your heroism, but to the impact you continue to have in shaping the attitudes of young people and creating an atmosphere that is favorable to progress and harmony among races. In today’s military you are a force and a voice that commands attention and appreciation. And for that, we thank you. [Applause]

The Department of Defense -- as many of you have heard this morning in briefings from my colleague and friend Bill Leftwich [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Equal Opportunity], and as others will talk about this afternoon -- our department has a wide array of equal opportunity programs and policies today. It is a very dynamic area that involves many cross-cutting issues, and I am always appreciative to General Lyles, here as the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force in his previous job: a man who had held down in his previous assignment the most technically challenging job in America today, missile defense, with all of the skills in engineering, physics, [and] calculations. We'll always be grateful to General Lyles and the other Vice Chiefs for their leadership on their [Department of Defense] Equal Opportunity Council, a body that the Deputy Secretary of Defense chairs, [of which] Bill Leftwich is our executive secretary, and that has as its mission focusing to ensure that we follow your lead and keep those doors open, the doors of progress and opportunity.

But in these sessions, in these discussions, it is a very dynamic area that involves many cross-cutting issues. But the reason I wanted to come here today is really quite simple. I wanted you to hear directly a very important message about today’s military. We have pride in today’s military and we are proud of the strides that we have made, but we have not crossed the finish line. Indeed, in some ways our work is harder now because there are some who think that all of the issues have been resolved. You know and I know, that that is not true. The journey to opportunity has no finish line.

The Department of Defense has long been held up as a model for the rest of the nation on issues of race. In fact there has been more progress in the military than in the civilian world. Today’s armed forces is the most integrated institution in America. More African Americans are in command, in leadership positions, than ever before—a fact that I think President Clinton and Secretary Cohen are particularly proud of. [Applause]

We have worked harder on this issue than any other institution, public or private. The practices and tones set at our bases and installations have had a strong, positive effect on the communities in which they are located. But that is only part of the story.

We can recruit young people from minority communities, but our job is not finished if those recruits move to less challenging fields because they lack skills and education when they come in the door.

Our job is not finished if we fail to recognize that each generation has its own unique problems and perceptions when it comes to race and ethnicity.

We can ensure our rules and regulations are clear and fair.

But our job is not finished if people believe that those rules and regulations are not being enforced fairly.

Our job is not finished if the rules and regulations work for those who are in uniform, but they do not reach people in our civilian workforce.

We can set strict policies against racism and discrimination.

But our job is not finished if there is a climate that discourages people from reporting harassment and abuses.

We can do everything possible to ensure that the promotion process is color blind.

But our job is not finished if men and women still lack mentors that can help them, guide them through those crucial hurdles at the O-4 and O-5 level, and at the mid-career and senior enlisted positions.

And our job is not finished if we are failing to present those with new tools and resources to those inside the military -- ensuring that we reach out to them, rather than waiting for them to reach out to us.

Since your convention last year we completed two of the most comprehensive reports ever conducted on many of these issues: one on attitudes about race and ethnicity, another on promotions and advancement. We wanted to look beyond the numbers and find out about underlying causes and how these issues were perceived.

The positive news is that our men and women in uniform are doing better than the civilian society on issues of race. They are more likely to be friends with someone of a different race or ethnicity. They are more likely to socialize outside of work with someone of a different race or ethnicity. More than three-quarters have received some training on equal opportunity and discrimination issues in the last year. And despite a few isolated high-profile events in which the perpetrators have been pursued vigorously, hate groups and extremists barely register any presence in the military today. [Applause]

However, our work showed that there are still major differences in how issues of race and ethnic representation are experienced on a day to day basis. And minorities are much more likely than whites to see and appreciate that.

For example, minorities are still much more likely to have offensive encounters based on their race or their ethnic background. Minorities are still much more likely to be pessimistic about the future in race relations. Only 17 percent of whites believed that the armed forces have paid too little attention to issues of racism and ethnic discrimination. However, more than 60 percent of our minority members believed that too little attention had been paid.

We sometimes find that this is an uncomfortable topic to talk about. When General Lyles and Bill Leftwich and Ruby Demesme, [Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and the Environment] and I were assembled with the Vice Chiefs we found that the first issue was to not be uncomfortable talking about where we agreed, but also to be comfortable to talk about where we had different experiences. Because until we talk to each other, until we’re ready to share those experiences, we can’t begin to take the next steps toward that finish line that we’re never going to reach. [Applause]

Another issue of particular relevance to this organization is the number of minorities in aviation. Always, every time I would see recently retired four-star General Lloyd "Fig" Newton, I’d like to tell him that when I would walk through the halls of the international airport in St. Louis there would be a picture of Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis, then there’d be a picture of Fig Newton, United States Air Force, Thunderbird pilot. If you ask Fig Newton who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw, without batting an eye he’d say, "You’re looking at him." [Laughter and applause]

But you know, I also asked that question of Colonel McGee. [Laughter] He was talking about that P-51 going against the Messerschmitt and all of the maneuverability. I said, "Colonel McGee, who is the greatest fighter pilot you ever saw?" He said, "Well, you’re sitting next to him." [Laughter and applause]

Our surveys have found that over a seven year period from 1990 to 1997, there was an increase in the percentage of minorities moving into careers in aviation. But overall, the numbers need much improvement and we have much work to do there. America today needs all the pilots and aviators that it can find. There’s a "help wanted" sign out there. So we’ve got to find everybody who has the tools and the skills and give them the training and the opportunity to sit there in the cockpit and take that F-16 or that F-22 or that Joint Strike Fighter to the top of the pyramid.

We’re hopeful, and last year [Air Force] Secretary [F. Whitten] Peters addressed this issue. In fact our Air Force leadership is doing much by pushing to get more information into the hands of young men and women who might not have considered the possibility of a career in aviation. In equal opportunity fairness, General Lyles would say there’s opportunities in the Air Force space program as well, on the rocket side of the house as well as the fighter side of the house. There are cutting edge jobs.

If you go to Patrick Air Force Base [at Cape Canaveral, Florida] and you meet the young majors and lieutenant colonels and colonels who are working on those Titans, and who are working on those Delta launch vehicles, and who are supporting NASA across the river at the Kennedy Space Center, you’ll see that these are young folks of every race and ethnic group that are at the leading edge of the pyramid both on the flight line and in the launch site.

It’s not enough, though, just to open the door to the armed forces. We have to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and we have to know that everyone knows that we are in this together. Fairness and opportunity for all cannot be afterthoughts of our military. They have to be preconditions—at every rank and at every grade. Until that happens, we need to keep pressing. [Applause]

But the most important question is: Where can we move ahead and how? If we had exhausted every possible avenue of progress we could simply wait and say, "Every year 200,000 new young people come into the military—some of the here at San Antonio, at Lackland Air Force Base—they come into the military, and we can let time take care of the rest." That sounds easy enough. But the one thing we know about discrimination and racism is that it is never easy. It is never easy to talk about. It is never easy to confront. It is never easy to end. And it is always changing. The problems of today are in so many ways as difficult and complex as those of the past. So we cannot just wait on time. We have to use time.

That came to mind just a few weeks ago as I was thinking about these remarks and doing some reading. I was reading of World War II and all of the bravery of "the greatest generation" and the role that Judge William Hastie played. He was the Dean of the Howard University School of Law, the alma mater of, I think, General Lyles. He was an advisor appointed in 1940 to then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Later, in 1943, he resigned because he felt that on principle he had to resign over the treatment of the "Lonely Eagles" [the Tuskegee Airmen].

Surely he must have been filled with pride a few months later when he read that New York Times story of January 4, 1943. Judge Hastie was very critical of the military, but it’s important to recall that he never gave up on it. He never stopped working for change. He continued to serve as a voice of conscience for the military and for the nation, pushing for change and condemning complacency but also praising those that had the courage to step forward.

As all of you know, five years later President Truman signed the order to begin a true integration of our armed forces. In 1948, President Truman personally thanked Judge Hastie for his role in speaking out for change, and speaking up for others who supported the change. In his plain, Midwestern way, Truman told Hastie, "I haven’t seen you for several months now, but I know where you have been and what you were doing." Then President Truman said, "I just want to say thank you."

Ladies and gentlemen, you, the Tuskegee Airmen, have certainly upheld that great tradition of speaking up and speaking out in so many ways inside the service and inside America. You have served as warriors in the sky, as members of the greatest generation who faced in the very early years of your youth the rendezvous with destiny that changed the world. A grateful nation will always be in your debt. I thank you for that service. Thank you very much. [Applause]