The U.S. Congress has given the nation's highest civilian honor to African-American aviators who were largely denied recognition for their bravery more than 60 years ago. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.
Victorious in the skies over Europe and North Africa during the Second World War, the heroism of America's first black airmen was virtually ignored on their return to a segregated America.
Seeking to overcome that injustice, American legislators have awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to surviving members of what came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Congressman Charles Rangel says America treated German prisoners of war better than its own Tuskegee Airmen.
"Nobody, white or black, in this country can understand how God has given you so much courage from a nation that had rejected you because of your color, said you couldn't fight, said you couldn't fly, said you just weren't worthy, that you had to go out there and prove to them just how wrong they were," Rangel says.
By the end of the war, the Air Force says Tuskegee Airmen destroyed or damaged more than 400 German airplanes and sank a battleship destroyer.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell thanked the airmen not only for what they did for African-Americans but for what they did for all Americans.
"You caused America to look into the mirror of its soul," says Powell. "You showed America that there is nothing a black person couldn't do. There is nothing a human being cannot do if given a sense of purpose, if given the opportunity, if given the training and the skills, and if you believe in them."
In a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, President Bush says the Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war and change a nation.
"These men in our presence felt a special sense of urgency," Mr. Bush says. "They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe. And the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens."
Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown says he and his colleagues helped inspire revolutionary reforms, including the integration of the Armed Forces in 1948.
"We are very, very pleased to have been in the forefront of this struggle for freedom and justice in this country. And, Mr. President we are so proud today, and I believe America is proud today," Brown says.
Past recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include George Washington, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.