Last week, our country lost two special people that made America and the world a better place, as Frank E. Petersen, Jr., 83, and Amelia Boynton Robinson,104, passed away.
Frank, born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1932, enlisted in the Navy at age 18 in 1950, only two years after President Truman had desegregated the armed forces. He began as a seaman apprentice, but a year later entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. In 1952, now a Marine, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and the Marines’ first black aviator.
Overcoming severe racial indignities, such as being arrested at an officers’ club on suspicion of impersonating an officer, and then overcoming a fear of heights, he brought new meaning to the noun perseverance. And after flying 350 combat missions during two tours, in Korea and Viet Nam, Frank became the first African-American to command a fighter squadron, the famous Black Knights, then an air group, and finally a major air base.
During his distinguished career, Frank obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from George Washington University, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and added yet another first to his list of pioneering achievements: becoming the first black Marine Corps general! Retiring in 1988, after 38 meritorious years as a three-star lieutenant general, he reflected humbly that, “Just to be able to say that you kicked down another door was such a great satisfaction.”
Frank’s fellow angel, Amelia Boynton Robinson, saw combat of a different variety and on American soil. On March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, Amelia joined 600 black demonstrators, led by John Lewis and the Reverend Hosea Williams, who set out to March from Selma, Alabama, to the State Capitol in Birmingham in order to petition for the right to vote. The marchers were confronted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers armed with tear gas, billy clubs, and whips. And Amelia, walking near the front of the line and subject to the full force of the troopers’ blows, was knocked unconscious.
In fact, an iconic photograph which was widely distributed by the news media shows Amelia lying insensible on the ground with a white officer standing over her, nightstick in hand. A second photo shows a fellow marcher taking her in his arms and struggling to lift her up. Hospitalized along with at least 17 other marchers, fortunately she recovered quickly, and the extensive news coverage of Bloody Sunday was pivotal in winning wide popular support for the Civil Rights Movement.
On August 6, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the federal Voting Rights Act into law, Amelia was a guest of honor at the White House. And on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march, when the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge was reenacted, Amelia, now 104 years old, made the journey in her wheelchair, holding hands with President Obama.
Interviewed last December, Amelia, reflecting back on Bloody Sunday, said humbly: “I wasn’t looking for notoriety. But it that’s what it took,” she added, “I didn’t care how many licks I got. It just made me even more determined to fight for our cause.”
It is my belief that the best way each of us can honor the legacy of these two individuals, who with determination and courage rose from ordinary circumstances to break the barriers of racial discrimination, is to follow their example. God willing, none of us will have to fly 350 combat missions in the service of our armed forces, or be beaten unconscious for peacefully exercising our constitutional right to assemble. What I take from their sterling contribution to making our America and our world a better place, and what I hope you will join me in doing, is starting right this minute, to renew our determination to work for social justice for all people, to make tolerance and inclusiveness a way of living, and to summon the courage to speak and act on behalf of these ideals. In short: Each and every day, be the change in the world we want to see!