Tuskegee Airmen to Get Congressional Gold Medal
By David Pluviose
A bill awarding the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal swept through Congress and has been signed into law by President Bush. A medal ceremony is expected in coming months, and it couldn’t come too soon for the few surviving airmen, many now in their eighties.
“There are many that are still with us, there are some that are very frail, some that are still very active but were running out of road. So expediting this has not been easy, but thank God, it’s gotten done,” says Cora M. “Tess” Spooner, president of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an umbrella organization comprised of the airmen and their numerous supporters in 50 chapters nationwide.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of about 1,000 Black pilots comprising the segregated 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps during World War II. Their exploits during the war are legendary, especially considering that the prevailing military attitude at the time considered Blacks incapable of aviation and unfit for leadership positions.
Known as “Red-tailed Angels” to the White bomber crews who sought their protection, the Tuskegee Airmen escort fighter wing never lost a U.S. bomber to enemy attack — a distinction no other unit shared. Their stellar performance is credited for motivating President Harry S. Truman to order the desegregation of U.S. armed forces in 1948.
“Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of credit for things, I call it ‘late payment.’ At the time, I personally didn’t think I was changing society, I was just doing my job.” says airman Lee Archer, who is credited with shooting down five enemy planes during the war.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award conferred by the United States Congress, and is presented by the president on behalf of Congress. It was first presented to George Washington in 1776 and most recently presented to Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. The Tuskegee Airmen are the largest group ever to receive a collective award.
— An extended version of this story appears in the May 4 issue of Diverse.
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