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African Americans in leadership

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- The 1950s were a tumultuous time for the United States as the winds of changes blew across the country and the social landscape was transformed as the Civil Rights movement went into full swing.

In 1954, the Supreme Court case ruling in Brown v. Board of Education overturned laws that permitted state-sponsored segregation. Just a few years before that in 1949, progressive and innovative Air Force leaders began paving the road to equality for all service members and ordered the service to be totally racially integrated.

Since the inception of the Air Force, African Americans have strived to be, and succeeded, in being valuable team members and leaders in the world's greatest air force.

Retired Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. started his career at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., where he earned his bachelor's degree and eventually became a fighter pilot in Vietnam. He led the famed flight in Operation Bolo, which led to the highest total single mission kills of the war.

Throughout his career James continued on his leadership path and proved himself as a leader in various assignments. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense (public affairs), the principle deputy assistant secretary of defense (public affairs), commander-in-chief for North American Aerospace Defense Command/Aerospace Defense Command and special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff. Because of his hard work and performance James was the first African American to earn the rank of four-star general.

James retired in 1978, but his legacy didn't end there. While he was leading Airmen in the field, there was a little Airman-in-training at home waiting to follow in his father's footsteps.

Retired Lt. Gen. Daniel James III followed his father's example and commissioned in the Air Force in 1968. Just one year later, he found himself fighting in the same war his father had two years earlier. The junior James made a name for himself as a pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours and 300 combat missions in Southeast Asia.

In 2002, after serving in units in Thailand, Texas, Arizona and California, President George W. Bush nominated James to be the director of the Air National Guard. The Senate confirmed James nomination, and he became the 11th ANG director and the first African American to hold the position.

African Americans have also made significant leadership contributions on the enlisted side of the house. The contributions of one significant African American leader impacts each enlisted Airmen as soon as they enter basic training.

To date, retired Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Thomas Barnes is the only African American to hold the position of chief master sergeant of the Air Force, and was a huge proponent of professional military education for enlisted members. He believed that no one should advance in rank without PME. His work helped build the commitment the Air Force has to PME training today.

Although Barnes himself was African American, he didn't set out to create equality for African American Airmen, but for all Airmen.

Frequently, Barnes was asked what programs he would implement for African Americans.

"The answer was none," he said. "I told them I work for all blue suiters."

The accomplishments of Airmen like Gen. James, Lt. Gen. James and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Barnes are not those just to be celebrated by African-American Airmen, but by all Airmen. They have proven that in the Air Force, no matter if you're an officer or enlisted member, no matter your race or origin, the only barriers you can't overcome are the ones you choose not to.