Remarks by CFTC Executive Director Anthony C. Thompson at the Black History Month Celebration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.
February 28, 2018
Mr. Hawkins, thank you for that most gracious introduction. I also would like to thank Ms. Paula Thomas, Chief of Equal Employment Opportunity and Inclusion for inviting me to today’s program.
Director El Frances Cissna, ladies and gentlemen of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, other distinguished members of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it is truly an honor to be with you today for this black history salute.
We are all the product of those who came before us. No one is an island. Robert Kennedy once remarked that, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different enters of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
That’s why Black History Month matters. We recognize the many contributions of those who came before, those who stood up and stepped forward, those who enable us to be here today. And, from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Harlem Hellcats to the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, Black Americans have made substantial contributions and sacrifices for our country.
Now, I am keenly aware we are here today to commemorate the contributions of Black Americans in times of war. Dr. Patton and I are here to offer some brief reflections on our military experiences. Yet, in my case, I would be remiss to not personally pay homage to all of the untold feats of heroism, bravery, and patriotism, repeated over and again, by Black Americans in times of war. These contributions, many before the advent of the American Revolution, made American history and helped create America.
And we must not forget those who make our country safe in other ways. I also want to take this opportunity to thank each of you for what you do in protecting the American public. This country and all her citizens owe you a deep debt of gratitude. Again, thank you.
It is important for me to go beyond just recounting my military biography. It is just as important to pay tribute to those who helped me set my value system, and cast the mold.
For example, I was not quite 10 years old on April 4th, 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis. Dr. King spoke for the best in American ideals and worked tirelessly to make the constitution embrace everyone.
I can vividly recall at that moment and period of enlightenment, how my life changed forever and gave me the passion to appreciate my heritage, and the impact of Black Americans on the larger fabric of American society.
This history helped transform America then to our America, now. He was one of the most influential figures in our history. Dr. King’s martyrdom and the accompanying messages and images of that era were the singular events that changed my small world, and gave me a sense of purpose.
His cause transformed my personal awareness beyond the single city block where I was raised in Fort Worth, Texas. Like many of my generation, I grew up with a new purpose in my heart and new frame of mind.
Dr. King gave me pride, his vision gave me courage, his example gave me strength, and his sacrifice provided me guidance. What he did for me he also sparked in millions of Americans, and in people around the world, people like Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
In my case, I was determined to live the dream that was deeply rooted in The American Dream. I knew I would never let anyone or anything stop me from reaching my true potential. You see, my destiny would be determined by the content of my character, my perseverance, and my attitude.
So, before I ever joined the United States Air Force, Dr. King lit a fire in me.
A little over seven years after my awakening, at the age of 17, I started serving the American people in 1975 by enlisting right out high school into the Air Force.
Like many of you, I had to work my way up the ladder. I began my journey as a Finance Technician, responsible for pay, disbursement, and accounting functions in support of the broader Air Force mission, at the rank of SSgt. and five years after enlisting; I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.
When I take stock of my various experiences in American society; the military offers one of the best opportunities to reach ones true potential. And, it undoubtedly needs to be, when one can be asked to pay the ultimate sacrifice, as multitudes of serviceman have. I served the first 15 years of my Air Force career during the Cold War Era, and I happened to be in Germany during that glorious moment when the Berlin Wall fell, and over the next several years helped broker various agreements and treaties as the Soviet Union gradually dissolved.
Afterwards, the Air Force was engaged in, and I supported conflicts in the Balkans, Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraq Freedom. While never in direct combat, I would be remiss in not noting my presence in the building, when the commercial airliner crashed into the Pentagon on 9-11, another life defining event. Through it all, I gained an immense personal appreciation for why the military; while not perfect, is known for firsts when it comes to equality. Over the course of my career, for me and my fellow airmen, it was all about mission accomplishment, and the ability to be challenged, and to deliver on what often appeared to be impossible challenges.
When I began my journey, I did not envision becoming part of the top tier of Air Force leadership as a Colonel, the most senior field grade rank within a 325,000 person organization. Today, Colonels are among the top 7% of senior leadership.
In the last 100 years, there have been many profound events which have impacted blacks in uniform. In my estimation, the most important event that made it possible for me to reach my station in the Air Force occurred in 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which ordered the integration of the armed forces shortly after World War II.
This was a major advance in civil rights for men and women in uniform. Although blacks have fought in every war from the American Revolution to the current war on terror; with honor, valor, and distinction, the issues prior to this Executive Order, were rooted in the lack of opportunities to lead combat troops of any race, to fight with the full rights of an American citizen; both at home and abroad, and the inability to find stability in career advancement, especially in the senior officer ranks.
Enforcement of the order was not easy, and most of the initial effectiveness of the order was accomplished several years later by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration from 1953–1961, including the desegregation of military schools, hospitals, and bases. The effort did not end there, but it was a profound start!
To illustrate how pivotal this was, as a nation, we have acknowledged countless instances of black heroism in every American war, yet medals of valor were not always awarded fairly.
One of the most compelling examples which speaks directly to systemic inequities for blacks in wartime throughout American history is the story of Lt. Vernon Baker. In early spring, of 1945, his unit was pulled from the reserve status and ordered into combat. On the morning of April 5th, Baker participated in an attack on the German stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi. During the assault, Baker led his heavy weapons platoon through German Army defenses to within sight of the castle, personally destroying a machine gun position, two observation posts, two bunkers, and a network of German telephone lines along the way.
It was for these and other actions, including leading a battalion advance under heavy fire that epitomized his gallantry.
In 1993, a study commissioned by the U.S. Army described systematic racial discrimination in the criteria for awarding decorations during World War II. At the time, no medals of honor had been awarded to the Black American soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that ten black Distinguished Service Cross recipients have their military awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven of the World War II veterans; Lt. Baker was the only living recipient of the medal at the time.
The military has many accounts where great Black Americans who sacrificed to make a difference. There are numerous examples of pioneers in our own Air Force that inspired me to uphold, as they upheld, the ideals of freedom, integrity, and determination we speak of today.
Consider-- Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first African-American general in the Air Force. He was born a stone’s throw away from where we assemble today in our nation’s Capital, during an era of segregation and discrimination against Black Americans. As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, other cadets shunned him and only spoke to him when forced to by their official duties. He didn’t have roommates in the dorms. He ate alone in his tent when in the field. This silent treatment continued throughout his four years at the U.S. Military Academy.
You can’t help but be inspired by perseverance through his belief in a higher cause and through his determination to succeed as an army officer. He remained committed to the primacy of his mission and deferred his protests until after World War II. His focus on mission performance, not only led to an astounding war record, but also became a core element behind President Truman’s decision to integrate the armed forces in 1948.
And, who could have imagined on the 18th August 2017, eight decades after his graduation, from the U.S. Military Academy at WestPoint, the hallowed halls of the institution that silenced him, would now honor him as one its finest by dedicating a $200m cadet barracks in his name. In terms of relevance, previous WestPoint graduates who received this rare privilege were President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Five-Star Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Or, think about the contributions of General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., the first African-American Four-Star General in the Air Force…he understood adversity at an early age. As a teenager, he pointed to a plane flying above his Pensacola, Florida, home and told his friends that he too would one day fly. His friends laughed and quickly reminded him that he was black.
But General James never saw this as a handicap; he embraced his race and his country. Even in America’s darkest hour of discrimination, the general said, “This is my country and I believe in her, and I believe in her flag, and I’ll defend her, and I’ll fight for her and serve her. If she has any ills, I’ll stand by her and hold her hand until in God’s given time, through her wisdom and her consideration for the welfare of the entire nation, things are made right again.”
You see, it’s not about who we are at the start – it’s about who you are determined to be at the end. When I was challenged in my Air Force career, I thought about the things those who went before me put up with and their successes, so I could have the career I was able to enjoy.
I have embraced the great Americans of all races in times of war; and through their example I realized: it’s not about where you come from – it’s about where you’re determined to go. It’s about the freedom to dream big dreams, the freedom to work hard and achieve, and the freedom to believe and succeed.
My mother told me while growing up: “It is not in the land, it’s in the man.”
So my focus has always been on improving the man, not being distracted by obstacles along the way that got in the way.
Because of the great Americans we have honored today, and countless others like them, it drastically increased the odds that I am able to stand before you today: a retired Colonel, a public servant, and an African American to share a message built around freedom, dignity and determination.
Thank you and God bless America.
Last Updated: March 5, 2018