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Hiram E. Little was one of four Tuskegee Airmen attending Decatur's annual MLK Unity Breakfast on Monday.
DAILY photo by Emily Saunders
Hiram E. Little was one of four Tuskegee Airmen attending Decatur's annual MLK Unity Breakfast on Monday.

Tuskegee Airmen fly again at Decatur MLK unity breakfast

By Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com 340-2438

While Southern whites forced them to ride in the back of the bus, black airmen from Tuskegee bravely flew out front, escorting American bombers over Nazi skies during World War II.

Who better than four Tuskegee Airmen to help the Decatur/Morgan County Minority Development Association honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy Monday during the 14th annual Unity Breakfast?

Hiram E. Little, 87; Lt. Col. Charles W. Dryden, 86; Wilbur Mason, 82; and Val Archer, 77, represented the Atlanta chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

More than 430 people attended the breakfast during which the association awarded 21 scholarships and Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson presented humanitarian awards to William Vaughn Jr. and Freddie Abernathy.

In her introduction, Peggy Allen Towns, staff assistant for U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, called the four Tuskegee airmen "men of great valor, heroes, legends and icons in their own right."

They did not disappoint. Following the breakfast, they were generous with their time, answering questions and signing Dryden's book, "A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman."

Archer, calling the audience "an amazing bunch of people," didn't dwell on "how ugly things were at that time."

"We knew what we could do and what we had to do," he said. "As we travel the country it rarely fails that the crews of those B-17s and B-24s we protected don't come up and thank us."

Archer lauded the work of the association and the support residents and businesses offer.

"In America, we take care of business, and in Decatur, you've really done good. You should be a showcase for the country," he said.

Little, whom the airmen call their resident jailbird because he once was arrested in Indiana for attempting to integrate an officer's club, said that in Decatur he felt as if he were at home. He cited as his heroes Hannibal, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and King.

Mason, a native of Tuskegee, began working at the base in supply, and "they gave me credit as being a Tuskegee airman." He said his one message to students is "to read the history of our experience, what we endured, and use it as a stepping -stone to accomplish and to achieve. Make goals and set goals, and make good decisions."

Dryden, who grew up in New York City, spoke of the positive change in America. He said Massachusetts recently elected Deval Patrick, only the second black governor ever elected, Virginia's Douglas Wilder having been the first.

He delved further back into history to show how slow the civil rights process can be.

"The Pilgrims arrived in 1619, and it took 300 years for women to get the right to vote," he said. "In 2008, we might have a woman president."

"The country has the ability to change, and we've shown it time and time again. We have the system and the tools to change," he said. "We have votes. You have an opportunity and an obligation to make a change."

He said he agreed with Little's list of heroes, but added another, Harriet Tubman, who worked for the Underground Railroad in the middle 1850s. During a 10-year span, she made 19 trips into the South and escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom. Dryden said he carries her photo in his briefcase.

In closing, he said people often ask him to describe what flying is like. He said he would never do it better than John Gillespie Magee Jr., who flew a Spitfire for the Royal Canadian Air Force at the start of World War II. He died in a crash at 19, three months after he wrote "High Flight."

As he recited the poem by heart, Dryden spoke as eloquently as a Shakespearean actor, bringing heartfelt passion and emotion to every line.

"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings," he began. "Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds ... and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of ... wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.

"Hov'ring there, I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air. Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace where never lark, or even eagle flew.

"And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

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