African-American heritage is American heritage

  • Published
  • By Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz
  • Air Force Space Command vice commander
In the 1920s, Dr. Carter G. Woodson concluded that if African-Americans were to take their rightful place in society, young Americans of all races needed to learn about African-American contributions to our history and culture.

In 1926, he launched the first Black History Week. Today, a movement that originally began in churches and schoolrooms is observed across America as African-American Heritage Month.

Dr. Woodson felt, African-American heritage should be remembered and celebrated by more than just one segment of the American population. African-American history is America’s history, shared by and affecting all citizens of our great country regardless of background or individual experiences.

The accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans to our society, to our culture and to our identity as a nation are numerous and varied. We’d be hard pressed to find any facet of American life that has not been shaped and immeasurably enriched by their knowledge, wisdom and talents.

In literature, you’ll find Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” on the modern library’s list of the best novels in the English language. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Five years later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize as one “who gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

The late Ray Charles was honored with eight Grammy Awards last year. African-Americans have pioneered sounds and styles in music that have influenced virtually every aspect of the American music scene.

Theater and film have also been greatly influenced by powerful performances by African-Americans. The late Ossie Davis received Kennedy Center honors in 2004 for a lifetime of achievement in the arts.

Beyond the arts, African-American scientists, inventors and engineers such as George Washington Carver, Elijah McCoy and Benjamin Banneker have helped unleash the tremendous resources of our country.

Yet in my mind, the most important contributions of famous African-Americans have been in the realm of political ideals and moral values. Perhaps I feel this way because my own academic training is in political history and philosophy. Perhaps it’s also because my generation witnessed firsthand the vision, courage and persistence that the great civil rights leaders displayed in confronting the evils of segregation and racial inequality.

In pursuit of this noble mission, the tenets of a moral philosophy have been established that will inspire and inform Americans of all races on how to conduct themselves for generations to come. Let me suggest a few examples particularly relevant to those of us who serve in our nation’s armed forces.

In his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

I think the example of Benjamin O. Davis Jr.’s experience at West Point in the 1930s illustrates this point beautifully. Davis was the only African-American cadet in his class. He entered the academy mindful that no other African-American had graduated since Charles Young, nearly 50 years earlier. From the outset, Davis’ classmates actively shunned him. Yet he remained resolute in his determination and did not falter.

He ultimately graduated in the top 15 percent of his West Point class; was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry; became the first African-American officer to solo in an Army Air Corps aircraft; commanded the famous Tuskegee Airmen who, flying fighters in the European Theater during World War II, never lost an American bomber to an enemy aircraft in more than 200 escort missions; and became the first African-American to wear an Air Force star. His life and service so powerfully demonstrate that whatever challenge we may personally or professionally confront, we can achieve truly magnificent things if we maintain our dignity and discipline.

Dr. King also talked about how every job was important, and everyone should do his or her particular job to the absolute best of his or her ability. He said, “Whatever your life’s work is, do it well.”

His point speaks directly to us in the profession of arms. Everyone in a military organization is vitally important to the success of the mission. No job is any more or less important than any other job in our outfit. No matter what your assigned task, you should do it as if someone else’s life or welfare depended on it -- because it probably does!

African-Americans have demonstrated that they were willing to fight for what they knew to be true, even at the cost of their personal safety and their lives. Through courage and self-sacrifice, they advanced the cause for equality -- individually and en masse.

During the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, when front-line troops were thinning under the German assault, a call went out to African-American units for volunteers to reinforce the lines. More than 4,000 men answered the call. Their performance in battle won the respect of all and drove another wedge into the barrier of segregation.

Dr. King perhaps said it best when he remarked: “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for…if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

This is the same kind of courage each of us in the military must possess -- the same kind of self-sacrifice that we must also be prepared to make.

We can take pride that many of these ideals are an integral part of the profession of arms. And we can take pride that the military has long been a leader in recognizing and advancing the concept of equality. It has led the way in correcting injustices, and today can rightly claim to practice the highest standards of equality and opportunity found anywhere in the land.

We’d be less than honest if we did not admit that even in today’s military we still have work to do to ensure that all our people -- regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or religion -- are treated fairly, equally and with dignity.

One of the most important keys to success in the military is mentoring -- teaching our young Airmen how to meet the unique standards we expect of them in the profession of arms. Unfortunately, experience shows that it is often difficult for some individuals to mentor people with backgrounds and interests other than their own.

Commanders and supervisors at every level must be aware of this often unrecognized barrier to full equality and ensure that all our Airmen receive the mentoring they need to reach their full potential. As military professionals, we are alike in more ways than we are different.

With that realization will come the fulfillment of the dreams of generations of courageous individuals who struggled and sometimes died to ensure that one day all Americans would have an equal opportunity to share in the blessings of our great land.