March 04, 2007
CONGRESSMAN YARMUTH'S EDITORIAL IN THE COURIER-JOURNAL FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH (reprinted in full and with permission of Congresman Yarmuth's office)
As we celebrate Black History Month this year, it is important that we examine the reasons for doing so. The most obvious answer is that February honors a group to whom our nation denied freedom, for nearly 300 years and continued to oppress with full legal support for another century after. Each February we honor African American history, not because it is black, but because it is rich-and because all too often it is ignored.
For example, Louisville is still home to three Tuskegee Airmen: Morris Washington, Alvin LaRue, and Julius Calloway. To truly understand the heroism and patriotism of these men, one must understand the time and conditions in which they found themselves.
Sixty five years ago, legally mandated bigotry permeated every aspect of civilian life. Opportunities for a black man or woman were few for the most superficial of reasons: the color of their skin. Lynchings were not uncommon, and legislation to criminalize these heinous and brutal acts were halted under the guise of States Rights and claims that you cannot legislate the hate in one's heart. (Martin Luther King famously exposed the flawed argument years later, pointing out "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me and I think that's pretty important.")
Still, when Congress demanded the formation of an all black Army Air Core unit in March of 1941, hundreds signed up to defend the country that oppressed them. Following the African-American military tradition that the Buffalo Soldiers began three generations prior, these brave volunteers, became the Tuskegee Airmen, and they did more than merely enlist. Ten months later, America found itself in the thralls of the Second World War and they prepared for action. But despite showing remarkable aptitude-96 was the lowest score among all their flight tests-a deep sense of racism blinded their commanders to the proper and necessary action, and the Airmen were initially left out of combat. But as the conflict wore on, necessity sent these dedicated and capable men of valor into the skies where they deftly completed mission after mission, giving America a vital advantage in our efforts to defeat the Axis powers.
In their legendary P-51 Mustangs, the Tuskegee Airmen astonished their doubters by prevailing against the Nazis, even though they frequently found themselves outnumbered and underequipped. Soon, the Airmen were known for their prowess rather than their race and inspired a legend that they had never lost a single man to enemy fire.
By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen had flown more than 15,000 sorties on 1,500 missions and were awarded two Presidential Unit Citations, 744 Air Medals, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, several Bronze and Silver Stars, and most recently a Congressional Gold Medal.
Though officially recognized for their heroic accomplishments, the Airmen returned to a nation still paralyzed by racial hatred and faced two more decades of legalized segregation. The same rights for which they had fought and prevailed overseas, were denied to them at home.
Every citizen who enjoys the freedom that America offers owes a debt to these courageous men who chose to look past their own oppression and see the potential of their nation's greatness. We are ashamed of the treatment they received and hope to follow their example, building a society where racial bigotry can be found only in the annals of our history books.
Washington, LaRue, and Calloway are just three of the nearly forgotten heroes who show us why black history is important; not because they are black, but because without their contribution and thousands more like them, we would have faced a bleak future indeed.
This is why we so desperately need the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, and why I will personally donate $10,000 annually from my Congressional salary for its construction. The true value of Black History Month does not end on March 1. Black history is American history, world history, and a history that we all share. The impact of the light bulb filament (invented by Lewis Latimer, a black man), the literature of Zora Neale Hurston, or Allied victory does not heighten or diminish in February or any other month. There can be no doubt that the Tuskegee Airmen and countless others are American heroes all year round, but if not for Black History Month they may never have crossed our radar.