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Tuskegee Airmen Awarded Congressional Gold Medal

March 29, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: It’s more than 60 years since these men answered the call to serve from a segregated America. Today, some 200 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen and their families were at the Capitol to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Almost 1,000 black combat pilots were trained in a segregated unit at the Tuskegee, Alabama, airbase. Hundreds saw combat in Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa.

They flew thousands of sorties, escorting bomber aircraft, with unusually few losses. Dozens died in the fighting, many shot down and held as prisoners.

Today, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi praised them in the Capitol Rotunda.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: In 1942, the African-American paper, the Pittsburgh Courier, called for a double victory campaign, victory in the fight against fascism abroad and victory in the fight against racism at home. Today, we come together to pay tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, who, with planes and the power of their example, fought against both of these foes, foreign and domestic.

Colin Powell gives his thanks

RAY SUAREZ: They also heard from a man who followed in their footsteps and gladly acknowledged his debt, former U.S. army general and secretary of state Colin Powell.

COLIN POWELL, Former U.S. Secretary of State: But I know, to the depth of my heart, that the only reason I'm able to stand proudly before you today is you stood proudly for America 60 years ago.


The question is begged, why? Why would we do this for all of these years? Why would we serve a nation that would not serve us?

Two answers, I think. One, not withstanding what they put in the Constitution about us being property, we still believed in the vision that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution set forth for the kind of America that could be in this new land.

We believed in that; we had to believe in it. What else would we have to believe in?

And the other reason, I think, is that military service, laying down your life for your country, was about the only way in which, for so many years, blacks could demonstrate that they were equal to any white citizen.

RAY SUAREZ: Then, it was President Bush's turn.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. And so, on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.

Inspiring reform in the military

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Roscoe Brown spoke on behalf of the airmen.

ROSCOE BROWN, Tuskegee Airman: When over 60 years ago we were flying in the skies over Europe, defending our country, and at the same time fighting the battle against racial segregation, and because of our great record and our persistence, we inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces, which led to integration in the Armed Forces in 1948, and, as the president said, provided a symbol for America that all people can contribute to this country and be treated fairly.

We are very, very pleased to have been in the forefront of this struggle for freedom and justice in this country.

And, Mr. President, we are so proud today, and I believe America is proud today. Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: The actual Gold Medal will go to the Smithsonian Institution for display. Individual airmen will receive bronze reproductions.