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39 words of presidential oath validate African-American struggles

Maj. Gen. Darren W. McDew, director of public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force, speaks to the audience at the Maxwell Officers’ Club on Feb. 4. As part of the African-American History Month celebration, General McDew related the historic struggles of African-Americans that were “validated by the 39 words” spoken by President Barack Obama while taking the oath of office. (Air Force photo by Jamie Pitcher)

Maj. Gen. Darren W. McDew, director of public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force, speaks to the audience at the Maxwell Officers’ Club on Feb. 4. As part of the African-American History Month celebration, General McDew related the historic struggles of African-Americans that were “validated by the 39 words” spoken by President Barack Obama while taking the oath of office. (Air Force photo by Jamie Pitcher)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The historic speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., along with the struggles for civil rights, were validated by the 39 words President Barack Obama spoke when taking the oath of office according to the Air Force's top public affairs officer.

Speaking to attendees at the African-American History month luncheon at the Maxwell Officers' Club on Feb. 4, Maj. Gen. Darren W. McDew, director of public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force, said he has gained an appreciation of the importance of words in his current assignment.

"It took American President Abraham Lincoln just over 270 words to shape a nation, to force the idea of civil rights and equality to the forefront of our national identity, and to remind us that, all men are created equal," General McDew said, referring to the Gettysburg address.

He also added that Dr. King used 1,578 words to ignite the civil rights movement in his "I Have a Dream" speech 100 years later.

A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, General McDew said he was the first African-American first captain and regimental commander of the corps of cadets at the southern university.

"Every time I faced doubt, hatred or anger, all I had to do was remember those, like Dr King, who had fought so hard for people like me to have opportunities like these," the general said.

General McDew remembered the Tuskegee Airman, African-American pilots who trained separately and compiled one of the leading fighter combat records of World War II. He commented that despite their war record, these pilots faced discrimination on returning home.

"Despite such adversity, the famed pilots of the red-tailed P-51s triumphed and proved that equality in standards was both possible and necessary," General McDew said.

When President Obama took the oath as the first African-American president, these 39 words changed the "pages of history," the general said. It fulfilled the words of President Obama when he said four years earlier that "there is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America."

General McDew said to remember that concepts like freedom and equality are not goals but rather the keys to unlock the door.

"It is up to each individual to determine whether that door would open to reveal a small, cramped closet or a magnificent, grand ballroom," he said. "Define your life. Don't have it defined for you. Make your own contribution to those who follow us."

Several performances led up to the general's speech including the National Anthem, a cultural dance in colorful kanga wrap skirts, and an inspirational poem.

The audience was also treated to a performance by Airman 1st Class Tarryn Holyfield, a bioenvironmental engineering journeyman with the 42nd Medical Group. Recently selected to tour with Tops in Blue, the Air Force's expeditionary entertainment unit, she brought the crowd to its feet with a rendition of the gospel hymn "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."

In his closing remarks, Col. Kris D. Beasley, 42nd Air Base Wing commander, thanked the African-American Heritage committee for coordinating the event. On the committee's behalf, he presented a check to General McDew for the American Cancer Society, one of the general's philanthropic interests.