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Op-Ed

Beyond the Rhetoric: First Lady Pays Tribute to Tuskegee Airmen

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Harry Alford

By Harry C. Alford
NNPA Columnist

 

Last week, I received an email from my friend, NNPA News Service Editor-in-Chief George E. Curry. It was a White House press release and a copy of First Lady Michelle Obama’s May 9 commencement address at Tuskegee University. My first thought was: Why is George sending me this?

For some reason, I stopped everything to read it. I almost fell out of my chair when the First Lady started talking about our famous Tuskegee Airmen. George knew that as a veteran and son-in-law of one of the first four Tuskegee Airmen, Charles DeBow, it fills me with great pride every time I hear something about these heroes.

The first lady said:

“And I’d like to begin today by reflecting on that history – starting back at the time when the Army chose Tuskegee as the site of its airfield and flight school for black pilots.     

 “Back then, black soldiers faced all kinds of obstacles.  There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men’s brains were smaller than white men’s.  Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were ‘childlike,’ ‘shiftless,’ ‘unmoral and untruthful,’ and as one quote stated, ‘if fed, loyal and compliant.’” 

 “So while the Airmen selected for this program were actually highly educated – many already had college degrees and pilots licenses – they were presumed to be inferior.  During training, they were often assigned to menial tasks like housekeeping or landscaping.  Many suffered verbal abuse at the hands of their instructors.  When they ventured off base, the white sheriff here in town called them “boy” and ticketed them for the most minor offenses.  And when they finally deployed overseas, white soldiers often wouldn’t even return their salutes.

 “Just think about what that must have been like for those young men.  Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day – flying at hundreds of miles an hour, with the tips of their wings just six inches apart.  Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody – as if their very existence meant nothing.

 “Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military. They went on to show the world that if black folks and white folks could fight together, and fly together, then surely – surely – they could eat at a lunch counter together.  Surely their kids could go to school together.

 “You see, those Airmen always understood that they had a ‘double duty’ – one to their country and another to all the black folks who were counting on them to pave the way forward. So for those Airmen, the act of flying itself was a symbol of liberation for themselves and for all African Americans. 

 “One of those first pilots, a man named Charles DeBow, put it this way.  He said that a takeoff was – in his words – ‘a never-failing miracle’ where all ‘the bumps would smooth off… [you’re] in the air… out of this world… free.’ 

“And when he was up in the sky, Charles sometimes looked down to see black folks out in the cotton fields not far from here – the same fields where decades before, their ancestors as slaves. And he knew that he was taking to the skies for them – to give them and their children something more to hope for, something to aspire to.

“And in so many ways, that never-failing miracle – the constant work to rise above the bumps in our path to greater freedom for our brothers and sisters — that has always been the story of African Americans here at Tuskegee….

“Those Airmen who rose above brutal discrimination – they did it so the whole world could see just how high black folks could soar. That’s the spirit we’ve got to summon to take on the challenges we face today.”

 She talked about the greatness of Tuskegee and then returned to DeBow:

That pilot I mentioned earlier – Charles DeBow – he didn’t rest on his laurels after making history. Instead, after he left the Army, he finished his education. He became a high school English teacher and a college lecturer. He kept lifting other folks up through education. He kept fulfilling his ‘double duty’ long after he hung up his uniform….

“And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country. And as the years pass, you’ll feel the same freedom that Charles DeBow did when he was taking off in that airplane. You will feel the bumps smooth off. You’ll take part in that ‘never-failing miracle’ of progress. And you’ll be flying through the air, out of this world – free.”

The first lady of our great nation was paying tribute to the person I love and whose blood flows through my wife and sons. For this, I am so appreciative and forever grateful.  Charles DeBow is smiling down on us.

 

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

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History

The Black Press: Our Trusted Messenger

Our Black newspapers are now celebrating 194 years of being the keeper of the flame of liberty and the source of information in “our” struggle for freedom and equality.

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Cover of the Oakland Post

Sometimes it’s necessary to be reminded who we are and who our friends are.  It’s also important to remember from whence we have come. 

Such is the case this week with the Black Press. Our Black newspapers are now celebrating 194 years of being the keeper of the flame of liberty and the source of information in “our” struggle for freedom and equality.

With the advent of the recent pandemic and the visible disparity of Blacks dying at greater numbers than others, getting fewer vaccines, working in the highest risk occupations and death at the hands of law enforcement, our need for a “trusted” source of information is greater than social media, which has become an alternative for many.

 At the same time, the interest in reaching our communities has increased on all levels. The question has become “who is in touch with the Black community” as injustice, murder and social disparity continues to grow among Blacks. 

The NAACP and the Urban League gave the impression that they were in touch with the Black community. But the reality is neither organization has ever been in touch with the Black community without the Black Press.  It is Black newspapers and not CNN, ABC, NBC or CBS that carries the articles and commentaries of these organizations to the Black community. 

Yet, neither of these organizations ever mentions the Black Press when taking both credit and dollars for outreach to the Black community.

The African American and Black communities of America should not be duped into believing that social media has become a substitute for the Black Press. The Black Press is now both print and electronic, it’s a newswire service as provided by the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), providing coverage of both news here in America and around the world.

 It is the Black Press that has been the “Trusted Messenger” to our communities for 194 years, and that says a lot. Our newspapers are the rear guard, the battle ground against the efforts to resegregate America and return to “Jim Crow” racism.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, let us remember that we are not only free but capable of defending and determining our futures if we get serious. Let’s remember how we got here, on the backs of those like the Black Press who bought us thus far; let us not forget in the words of James Weldon Johnson: that “ we have come over a way that with tears has been watered, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” We are still being slaughtered today by others as well as each other.

Let’s remember who is truly telling our story and our obligation to keep and support that effort. Pick up a Black newspaper and get involved. You owe that and more to keeping the Juneteenth principle of freedom alive today.

Editor-in-Chief note:  The Post News Group consists of nine newspapers:  Oakland, South County, San Francisco, Vallejo, Marin, Stockton, Richmond, Berkeley Tri-City and El Mundo.  We are also online at postnewsgroup.com.

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Black History

Juneteenth: Our Independence Day

Also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, it commemorates the end of slavery, the seminal event in Black history.

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Graphic courtesy istock.

June 19, or Juneteenth, is independence day for many Americans of African descent.

Also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, it commemorates the end of slavery, the seminal event in Black history.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but was read to slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, more than two years later.

There are several different accounts of why the news of freedom took so long to arrive.

One story has it that slaves were intentionally kept ignorant about their freedom in order to allow crops to continue being harvested. Another has a messenger traveling by mule to deliver the news, and it simply took more than two years to arrive from Washington, D.C., to Texas. Yet another story has the messenger being murdered before he could deliver the message.

No matter the origin of Juneteenth, the end of slavery is definitely worth celebrating. But while much has happened in the 158 years since slavery officially ended, its legacies still remain in the form of disparate salaries, educational levels and incarceration rates.

Juneteenth, which is now observed in 48 states (North Dakota and Hawaii do not observe)  and the District of Columbia, is a time to take stock of our progress — and of the work that remains.

Last year, during the pandemic our current vice president and former senator, Kamala Harris, said:  “[m]y message on this Juneteenth:  may we honor those who suffered, died and survived the crushing reality of slavery by looking to the future.”

Twelve years ago President Barack Obama said: “African Americans helped to build our nation brick by brick and have contributed to her growth in every way, even when rights and liberties were denied to them.”

We’re still building it.

In 2021, as our state opens up post-pandemic and we deal with racial reckoning as we never have before  #BlackLivesMatter is becoming a reality. 

This year is truly our Independence Day.

Happy Juneteenth.

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Community

Closing Youth Prisons Is Not Enough

But without a plan to invest in and institute a restorative justice framework, most of that money might find its way back into local youth jails rather than into treatment and rehabilitation.

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Ella Baker Center staff and members attend a Books Not Bars rally in Sacramento advocating to close youth prisons in California. Courtesy of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

COMMENTARY

As a parent who was involved in the juvenile system as a teenager, I know too well that children who are struggling should never be incarcerated and treated like criminals. 

Instead, they should be cared for as young people in need of restorative help. This May, dedicated as National Mental Health Awareness Month, was the perfect opportunity to embrace human rights and racial justice by moving from a carceral system of punishment to a community-based health system of restorative care.

“We have a system in place that is not really focused on rehabilitation,” Los Angeles State Senator Sydney Kamlager told CalMatters in January. Unlike some states, we have not had a governing body in California to oversee trauma-responsive, culturally informed services for youth–the majority of whom are youth of color–in the juvenile justice system.

Fortunately, we in California finally have a chance to make a change. California Senate Bill 823, signed by Gov. Newsom last December, shuts down California’s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and redirects millions of dollars to counties to provide care and resources for young people. But without a plan to invest in and institute a restorative justice framework, most of that money might find its way back into local youth jails rather than into treatment and rehabilitation.

Sonya Abbott and her son Anthony Johnson can attest that a transformation is long overdue. When Anthony was 16, Sonya found a bag of Xanax in his back pocket. Believing that he intended to sell the drugs, she made the difficult decision to turn him in. At the time, she viewed her decision as a way to save her son’s life, and the lives of others.  Now she says, “I feel like it just made things worse.”

As is too often the case, Anthony was cycled through a number of ineffective programs and has been shuttled back and forth among several facilities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the DJJ went into lockdown, Anthony was at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in San Joaquin County. Feeling lonely and depressed because of the isolation, Anthony asked for extra counseling.

“They refused to give it to me. They laughed at me,” Anthony says.

 Anthony attempted suicide roughly two days later. He remembers a Chaderjian staff member witnessing his suicide attempt and saying, “You’re not doing it right, I’ll call this one in later,” then walking away. Afterward, Anthony was kept in the medical unit for a month, locked in a room for 23 hours a day, without any counseling or companionship.

Throughout all of this, the DJJ did not inform Abbott of her son’s suicide attempt, nor his consequent transfer to Patton State Hospital. After Anthony missed a scheduled Skype visit, Abbott had to call every juvenile facility in California to locate him, and only then learned that he had tried to take his own life. He remains at Patton today.

Statistics show that suicide and suicide attempts are too common. According to a 2014 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection, “11% of the youth (in the juvenile justice system) had attempted suicide at least once,” far exceeding the percentage  in the general population.

Nor are the dangers of youth incarceration justified by the outcomes. A 2015 study from the University of Washington, observed that, “juvenile incarceration is not only ineffective at reducing criminal behavior,” but that those who were incarcerated in their youth were more likely to suffer negative consequences in every aspect of their adult lives.

Abbott describes Anthony as a good kid who just got himself a little lost. “I don’t understand why there’s no resources for these kids,” she says. “They are just locked up and forgotten. I can’t let my kid be one of their victims.”

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to chart a new direction. Part of SB 823 creates Juvenile Justice Coordinating Councils (JJCC) in each of our 58 California counties, bringing together experts and constituents like Abbott and Anthony, whose lives have intersected with the juvenile justice system. 

These new councils will help guide how the millions of dollars in new state funding can best be deployed to provide a continuum of care. To inform that process, youth advocates have been working to implement a community vision of care to replace the old carceral model that has failed so many of our most vulnerable young people of color.

Advocates are also pushing the state to properly resource the new department within Health and Human Services (HHS) that will provide oversight for the new system. The proposed budget is a woefully inadequate $3 million; Assemblymember Cristina Garcia and state Senator Maria Elena Durazo, joined by the California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice and members of the Free Our Kids Coalition, are pushing for a larger allocation to help scale up community-based interventions by local groups. 

If a community system rooted in healing had already been in place, Sonya Abbott and Anthony might have received the help they really needed. We can do better for our kids and our communities.

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