Sen. Anderson's Bridge Builder Award Acceptance Speech at the Sixth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Birthday Luncheon on Jan. 12, 2018

Friday, January 12, 2018
  • Thank you, Chuck and Pierre for your kind words and the tremendous work you have done with the USS Midway Museum Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

  • I also would like to thank Real Admiral John “Mac” McLaughlin and your team for your efforts to organize this important event to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior – a man who endured immense suffering and made the ultimate sacrifice to build cultural bridges.

  • He also bravely walked across literal ones.

  • After “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, Dr. King famously lead protestors in a march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama that crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

  • Walking with him across that bridge was Dr. King’s bodyguard, a man named Dabney Montgomery whose shoes from that march are now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

  • Mr. Montgomery was originally from Selma and was living in New York when, according to the Washington Post, he “saw newscasts of civil rights activists being attacked with fire hoses and tear gas” and said “I’m going and getting a taste of that gas… I’m going home and [taking] part in that movement.”

  • The civil rights movement wasn’t the first fight for freedom in which Dabney Montgomery volunteered to engage. 

  • You see, two decades before, Mr. Montgomery was a ground crewman with the Tuskegee Airmen.

  • The United States Army Air Corps formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Medium Bombardment Group at Tuskegee Institute to train African American fighter pilots who, until that time, had not been accepted into pilot training programs in the military.

  • The Tuskegee Airmen unit, including its officers and enlisted personnel, received three Presidential Unit Citations, 150 Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit awards, the Red Star of Yugoslavia, nine Purple Hearts, 14 Bronze Stars, and more than 700 Air Medals and Oak Leaf Cluster awards.

  • It cannot be overstated what these men accomplished.  Especially during the era of the 1940’s, a time when racism was the norm and Jim Crow laws were still widely used in the South.

  • The Tuskegee Airmen not only helped defeat fascism overseas, but just as importantly, they broke down the barriers of racism and segregation here in America and contributed to the complete racial integration of the military.

  • In 2011, at a pancake breakfast with the Rancho Bernardo Historical Society, I was approached by Retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant and Rancho Bernardo resident Oscar D. Teel who presented an idea to me for a recognition of these true American heroes.

  • Over the course of our conversation, I felt a sense of urgency to ensure they received this recognition because it wasn’t clear how long these brave men would be with us.

  • From that point, we began an effort together to ensure that the incredible accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen would be recognized and forever remembered.

  • As we began our research and realized that only three other states had similarly recognized the Tuskegee Airmen, it became even more important for us to do so.

  • So in 2012, I introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 90 which recognized the outstanding achievement of the Tuskegee Airmen and also commended the work of the nonprofit Tuskegee Airmen, Inc which introduces young people across the nation to the world of aviation and science through local and national programs.

  • With the extraordinary efforts of members of our coalition like Peggy Cooper, Oscar Teel, Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated, and Ed Smith Jr, SCR 90 passed both houses of the California legislature.

  • And it was one of the greatest honors of my legislative career, and my life, to be present on February 22, 2013, when the vision to honor one of World War II’s most elite combat units became a reality with the unveiling of the “Tuskegee Airmen Highway” – a dedicated section of Interstate 15 located appropriately near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

  • In this process, I had the privilege of meeting several Tuskegee Airmen who shared their stories with me and deepened my respect for their character, service, and extraordinary efforts to build bridges.

  • Tuskegee Airman Nelson Robinson told us a story then about when former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee.

  • As she observed Tuskegee Airmen flying in the sky above her she said that her prior understanding was that “Blacks couldn’t fly.”

  • So Mrs. Roosevelt asked to ride with the current chief instructor, Chief Anderson. Her security became concerned and called then-President Roosevelt who told the security to leave her alone.

  • Needless to say, Mrs. Roosevelt had a great ride.

  • Buford Johnson, another Tuskegee Airmen said: “We weren’t good. We weren’t better. We were the best that this country could produce.”

  • And San Diego Tuskegee Airman Claude Rowe said, “We were not just fighting for our country, we were fighting for our dreams and we were willing to give our lives for it.  Our country has come a long way.”

  • Indeed it has. Yet we must recognize that we still have a long way to go.

  • While I humbly accept this award today, I don’t believe that what our coalition did to recognize and share the story of these brave American heroes should be the exception.

  • As a society, we all have a responsibility to tell their story to future generations of Americans.

  • We must tell them how the Tuskegee Airmen risked their lives to defend the promise of America even though the America they too often experienced did not live up to that promise.

  • And they still sang: “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT”

  • The Tuskegee Airmen fought in Europe to defend a country that declared that all men are created equal even though they themselves experienced discrimination, suffering, and unequal treatment both in and out of the service.

  • And they still sang: “We are the Heroes of the night – To hell with the Axis might -- FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!”

  • While I don’t pretend to fully understand the experience of the Tuskegee Airmen, I do believe that what we can learn from them is this: over the course of its history, America has often failed to live up to its promise. But that promise is still worth fighting for – whether it’s in the skies of Europe, or on a bridge in Selma – the idea of America is worth the fight.

  • God bless the Tuskegee Airmen, and thank all of you for doing your part to ensure that their story is remembered forever.

  • Thank you.