SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. —
Petty, a friend of significant Civil Rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a guest speaker and panelist at a panel discussion in honor of Dr. King’s birthday observance on Scott Air Force Base, Jan. 9, 2024.
The other panel members included Ms. Jaye P. Willis, author and executive director of the East St. Louis Historical Society, along with the following U.S. Air Force members:
- Col. Christopher Robinson, United States Transportation Command J6 deputy director
- Col. Samuel Douglas, retired
- Lt. Col. Jared Gilmer, 375th Operational Support Squadron commander (facilitator)
- Chief Master Sgt. Rolan Smith, retired
Petty carved his path as one of the inaugural African American Peace Corps Country directors, undertaking responsibilities in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and the Seychelles. He is also a historian for his hometown of East St. Louis, where he still resides.
The panel showed how essential it is for Scott and other military entities to take the time to respect and acknowledge African American sacrifices, such as those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with those who have served or continue to serve.
Gilmer began the discussion by asking the panel members their reactions to the assassination of Dr. King on the cloudy day of April 4, 1968.
“I think, like most people at the time, we were furious. Taking a step back at the time, I remember being in tears,” said Petty. “But we, as did most of those people who really knew him, felt that we had lost a [leader], if not the leader, of the civil rights movement.”
Smith shared Petty’s sentiments.
“I was about 17 years old when Dr. King was assassinated,” said Smith. “As Mr. Petty mentioned, anger was the first thought that came to my mind as a 17-year-old. Any great leader who goes before their time is taken from all of us. So anger, maybe focused in the wrong direction, was still anger.”
At a point in the discussion, Gilmer asked Douglas his thoughts about the progression of the civil rights movement.
“I think the Civil Rights Movement impacted the world. The Civil Rights Movement gave us hope and an opportunity to do better and change,” said Douglas.
Gilmer then opened the floor for Willis to tell her story about the challenges she faced before she ever stepped foot into the world.
“Mr. Petty was born in 1935. He was conceived in East St. Louis, but he could not be born in any of the hospitals in East St. Louis; he had to be born in St. Louis in a negro section of Barnes Hospital,” said Willis. “I was also conceived in East St. Louis in 1963 and still could not be born in a hospital. I, too, was born in the negros section of Barnes Hospital. It’s so important to understand and know your local history. It’s not something we’re bitter about; it is a reality.”
When Gilmer asked the panel members what they wanted people who were not of African American heritage to take away from the discussion, Douglas reflected his experiences as an African American commander at a time when there were so few in the military, and how his team grew stronger as they overcame their biases.
“In my first command, I had some young Caucasian guys under me who had never seen a black officer, and they said, ‘We didn’t know if what you said goes; we thought we could talk to somebody else and didn’t have to follow your directions,’ but after we became a team, we won every award at Goodfellow Air Force Base,” Douglas said. “What that means is you have to work hard to get rid of any insecurities and any issues that they have and bring with them to the military.”
Gilmer opened the floor to questions from the audience members. Questions ranged from how to correct bigoted statements to the idea of reparations and other economic assistance for African Americans.
Following questions from the audience, Col. John Poole, 375th Air Mobility Wing commander, gave closing remarks.
“As we go into Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, and as we reflect on the legacy and the life of Dr. King, it should be acknowledged not just as a four day holiday,” said Poole, “but as an opportunity to thank him and reflect on where we are as a nation and as a community, so that we can become the members of society that we need to be, and ultimately become the Air Force our nation needs.”