As we conclude another Black History Month, I’m reminded of a true American hero and impressive leader – General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
In 2019, my fellow authors and I published a book about the attributes of inspirational leaders like General Davis including competence, commitment, courage, compassion and, most importantly, character in our book ‘Leadership from 30,000 Feet’.
Now, if the name Benjamin Davis Jr. isn't familiar to you, let me point out a few of his life’s most notable and distinguished accomplishments. Davis attended West Point in the 1930s as the only African-American cadet at the time. Davis’ Academy classmates chose to “silence” him because of the color of his skin and many of them did not speak to him during his four years at West Point. Rather than support Davis, Army senior leaders secretly hoped he would drop out as a result of this dreadful isolation. Despite this discrimination, Cadet Davis demonstrated courage and commitment by excelling in his studies and military training, ultimately graduating in the top third of his class and becoming only the fourth black West Point graduate in the institution’s first 140 years of existence. Even more remarkable, when Davis graduated, the Army only had two black officers on active duty who weren't chaplains – Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and his father Benjamin O. Davis Sr. who went on to become a Brigadier General in the Army before his retirement. During his senior year at West Point, Cadet Davis desired to attend pilot training, but Department of the Army policy at the time did not allow black officers to join the Army Air Corps and so he went to Infantry Officer school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
After President Roosevelt ordered the military to create a black flying unit in 1942, Davis began pilot training and demonstrated impressive competence in airmanship as the first African American officer to solo a military aircraft and then joined four other black pilots to be the first to qualify in fighter aircraft. He served with distinction and flew with precision before being selected as the commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all-black US fighter squadron flying combat missions in Europe during WWII. Later, as a colonel, he courageously led the 332nd Fighter Group, known as “The Red Tails,” earning the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross during 67 combat missions for his valor. Davis also commanded the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing during the Korean War which resulted in his promotion to the rank of Brigadier General.
Davis was ultimately promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General (3-star) and retired from the Air Force in 1965 after a long and distinguished career. During his successful life after retirement from active duty, President Clinton signed an Executive Order promoting Benjamin O. Davis Jr. to the rank of 4-star General, recognizing his amazing character, trailblazing commitment, and unmatched courage in overcoming discrimination and racial injustice.
We should all take thoughtful note of General Benjamin Davis’s accomplishments since he overcame huge obstacles and major setbacks to achieve great things, and to lead other men and women to do similarly. The United States of America and its storied history is not perfect by any measure, so we should always remember and celebrate the individual tenacity, perseverance, and impressive character of leaders like Davis who showed us the absolute necessity of a fair and equitable society where all people, regardless of background, color, or gender, can rise to impressive levels of accomplishment and leadership.
In closing, I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who once said:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Let us all aspire to live by these words and follow the example of impressive leaders like United States Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
My colleagues in Two Blue Aces now have a second book in publication titled, “Leadership at 100 Feet.” This book carries on with a similar theme from our first book titled, “Leadership from 30,000 Feet”, where we emphasize the important attributes of great leaders … The 5 Cs!