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Charles E. McGee was born in Cleveland, Ohio on December 7th, 1919. Lewis McGee and Ruth McGee were his parents. His father was a minister, social worker, and teacher which led to the family moving homes often. After graduating high school, Charles worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps to earn money to attend college, where he studied engineering. Once war was declared after Pearl Harbor, he was informed the army was recruiting to train black soldiers as mechanics for the “expected colored soldiers’ flight program”.
After pursing this program, he passed his aviation exam and became a pilot. Throughout his many military endeavors including leading many missions of the Tuskegee Airmen, Charles became the most decorated and accomplished Air Force aviators, holding.
Air Force record of 409 fighter combat missions flown in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In 2007, President George Bush awarded him and the remaining Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.
During the World Wars, it was imperative that the fighter pilots and bomber crews developed a special symbiotic relationship. The partnership between fighter and bomber pilots was based on shared objectives and sustained by mutual respect, two fundamentals which in peace time had not existed between blacks and whites (Smith, 2003). Many bomber groups at the time were not even aware there were black fighter pilots.
These white pilots couldn’t understand that black men could also be pilots, let alone fighter pilots serving as their protecting escorts.
Uncertainty about the ability of black men to perform this role not only existed in the field, but also was in the highest military and political offices. Although the Tuskegee airmen were among the best fighter pilots they weren’t granted the same respect as white pilots. Not only were the Tuskegee airmen fighting a war against foreign powers, they were also fighting a war against segregation in not just their military careers but also their home life. Charles E. McGee played an important role in leading these men on their missions despite adversity. He also encouraged his fellow fighter pilots to keep pushing forward, despite not being recognized for their amazing abilities and bravery nearly as much as white pilots.
Charles McGee knew that if he and his fellow airmen persevered, eventually the country they were protecting would recognize their efforts and change their attitudes about black fighter pilots. The Tuskegee airmen became not only heroes in war, but heroes in civil rights action. They played a significant role in shifting racial attitudes, as it provided an opportunity for the Air Force to do away with segregation. The Air Force realized they needed to use people based on their training and experience, not the color of their skin. The Air Force led the nation in shifting racial attitudes, although many of the effects were not seen until the ‘60s. Charles McGee states in an interview, “But had we not been successful, both in not only learning to fly, but performing well in combat, it’s hard to say what could have taken place because of the attitudes that still considered minorities as second-class citizens”.
I would consider Charles McGee to be a transformational leader. His characteristics include the ability to inspire others to transcend their own self-interest as they put their country before themselves, and he also had a profound and extraordinary effect on followers, such as fellow Tuskegee Airmen. He is considered charismatic and provided vision and a sense of mission in regular combat, while instilling pride and gaining the respect and trust of his fellow airmen. These men had entrusted him with their lives. As a leader in combat, he communicated high expectations to these men, as they had to develop an unprecedented level of discipline, excellence and fortitude to achieve success. An innate talent of Charles McGee was the ability to find the light in unfortunate circumstances, and use it as valuable experience preparing.
He was not broken by adversity, rather he emerged from obstacles with newfound strength and purpose like a true leader. Lifelong friendships were formed amongst Tuskegee families as they shared the same experiences in waiting, happiness, and tears of the war years. They became a major source of comfort and support for one another. This support was crucial as it made the black community stronger. Unfortunately, the rest of the town of Tuskegee was not as receptive to the achievements the Tuskegee Airmen had accomplished when returning from war. Policemen and other officials made the lives of these men difficult, often discriminating and giving out unfair tickets or charges. These men were also likely to experience discrimination throughout their military career due to the overriding influence of segregation in the military services.
A white military leader, Noel Parrish, was committed to fairness. As a commander of Tuskegee in 1945, he was an outspoken defender of the move for equal treatment for black pilots. He objected the status quo addressing this issue in a report submitted to the War Department, reading “whether we like or dislike Negroes and whether they like or dislike us, under the constitution of the United States, which we are all sworn to uphold, they are citizens of the United States, having the same rights a privileges of other citizens and entitled to the same applications and protection of the law” (Smith, 2003). This information is relevant because as Charles McGee pushed for the success of Tuskegee airmen alongside Parrish and other black pilots, he was also pushing for the success of equal rights and protection under law.
As a leader, Charles McGee never asked his fellow airmen to do anything he wouldn’t do. He was able to make tough decisions and be held accountable for the outcome. The pilots reporting to him looked up to and respected him. Charles knew to gain recognition, it wasn’t enough for black pilots to simply meet expectations. He knew that black pilots would have to accomplish exceptional tasks to overcome racial barriers. Instead of harboring resentment for having to prove himself or go the extra mile, Charles chose to be optimistic. He also respected the men working below him, many of them being white men. They never doubted his ability to lead.
The story of Charles McGee serves to enlighten, as there had always been fabrications about the character and capability of black men propagated by white men, permitting them to suppress them with no remorse. Blacks were able to reserve self-respect by perceiving this suppression as a moral deficiency in whites. Over a century ago the effort to rewrite these fabrications and remove legal barriers began, yet the dialogue for racial healing is still fairly new in contrast to the dialogue for division. The Tuskegee Airmen entered hostile territory in more ways than one, hoping they would serve as instruments of change that would bring forth a new day.
Charles McGee continues to lead others by giving special presentations about his life as a Tuskegee Airman, inspiring many to persevere despite all obstacles and to do their best in all endeavors. He encourages the youth to “perceive their dreams, to prepare for their dreams by obtaining a good education, to perform to a standard of excellence, and to persevere in the face of adversity” (McGee, 2014). In retirement, McGee remained diligent in his many community activities. He served in various leadership roles with the Boy Scouts of America, and in 2009 was honored with the Distinguished Eagle Scout award given to Eagle Scouts who have received exceptional national-level recognition, fame, or distinction within their field, and have a consistent record of voluntary service to their community. His motto of “Do while you can,” still continues to inspire many.
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