The Future of America: A Lesson From the Past

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Recently I saw the movie, “Red Tails,” a wonderful tribute to the bravery and skill of the Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated unit of Black fighter pilots whose bravery and skill helped ensure the American WWII military success against the Germans in Europe.  There is a scene early in the film where a group of White military officials are discussing the value of investing in a team of Black pilots, who were believed by some to lack the intelligence or the courage to be of any real use in battle.

Because the expectations were so low, the decision makers had assigned the worst planes and the least significant combat assignments to the Airmen.  Yet, in this scene, the commander of the unit, played by Terrence Howard, is advocating for his men, asking that they be given new planes and a chance to do the more meaningful but dangerous work of protecting the U.S. bombardiers, with the promise that his men would outperform the units that had been previously given that assignment.   His request is granted, and his men deliver on his promise, far exceeding the expectations of the military brass.

Though this film is about African-American men in the armed forces, and does not speak to the legacy of women such as Spelman alumna Dovey Johnson Roundtree C’38, one of the first Black women to serve in the armed forces, it does highlight an important lesson from our past that we must pay attention to if we want to ensure a bright future for our nation and all of its children.

Just as there were decision makers in the 1940s who believed it foolish to invest our best resources in developing the talent of Black pilots, today there are still those who do not see the wisdom of making our best investment in the education and development of young people of color, believing that the return on the investment will be too small.  I believe that it is this attitude, though not always spoken aloud, that has contributed to the erosion of support for public pre-K-12 education across the nation.

Yet, the future of our nation depends on the effective education of all of our students.  We cannot afford to write any of them off.  As the racial and ethnic demographics of our nation change, it will be the young people of color in our nation who will ultimately determine its future, just as the Tuskegee Airmen shaped the outcome of the European conflict.   It is with that knowledge that we must work vigorously to expand resources and opportunities for the women of Spelman College, young women of African descent from every corner of our nation, many of them first-generation college students, who when challenged in an environment of high expectations are capable of achieving more than we ever imagined.

How do I know?  I see it every day in the history-making accomplishments of our graduates – women like our board chair Rosalind Brewer C’84, recently named CEO of Sam’s, Club

a $50 billion enterprise, thus becoming the first woman and first African-American to lead a business unit of Wal-Mart; or Stacey Abrams C’95, the first woman and the first African-American to lead the Democratic Caucus in the Georgia State House of Representatives; or Dr. Evelynn Hammonds C’76, a dual-degree engineering major at Spelman, with graduate degrees from MIT and Harvard, now the dean of Harvard College; or LaShanda Holmes C’06 who is the nation’s first Black female Coast Guard helicopter pilot.

Like the Tuskegee Airmen before them, at this critical moment in our nation’s history – with meaningful opportunities and the necessary resources made possible by your support – Spelman women are ready to fly! — Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College.

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