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On Dec. 6, 2013, I celebrated 27 years as a proud and devoted team member of American Airlines, now the largest airline in the world. The day before that, however, will go down as a very sad day in history. It was the day Nelson Mandela, an iconic world leader, passed away. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless unsung heroes, Mandela devoted most of his life to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all people.

Being from Selma “1965” Alabama, as I often and affectionately describe my hometown, I was smack in the middle of civil rights history. Like Mandela, many foot soldiers in Selma refused to allow the mistreatment of people and denial of basic rights that were present so long under Jim Crow laws. It was on March 7, 1965, when a small group of 600 citizens led by current U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said “no more.” They were attempting to march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery to protest exclusion from the voting process and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a citizen of Marion, Ala. (which was also the home of MLK’s wife, Coretta Scott King). Jackson was a young black participant in a peaceful demonstration in February when state troopers attacked the group. In the ensuing chaos, he was shot and fatally wounded by a state trooper. March 7 will forever be etched in our country’s history as “Bloody Sunday,” as innocent citizens were met by angry police with tear gas and billy clubs.

A second failed attempt to march from Selma occurred two days later with a larger group of about 2,000 protesters, led by Dr. King, who turned the group back to avoid violence when confronted by troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The third attempt, however, beginning on March 21 and ending at the Capitol on March 25, was successful, thanks to the protection of almost 4,000 U.S. Army soldiers, Alabama National Guardsmen under federal command, federal marshals and FBI agents. With approximately 25,000 participants that included everyday people, celebrities, politicians and leaders from around the world representing every culture and religion imaginable, the event shined a very bright light on little old sleepy Selma. That light forced the world to see evil that could no longer be overlooked and ultimately helped with the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The route from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama will forever hold significance for the journey taken there nearly 50 years ago.
Stephen Saks/Getty Images
Today, “Bloody Sunday” and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are commemorated every year in Selma at an event known as the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. It is held on the first full weekend in March at the foot of the now-famous Edmund Pettus Bridge. American Eagle flies into Montgomery Regional Airport, which is on the same Selma highway that marchers took on their way to the capital. (The route is now a national historic trail and has a sign designating it so.)

American Airlines hired its first African-­American flight attendant and pilot in 1963 and 1964, respectively, during a time when racism was at its peak. Capt. Dave Harris and flight attendant Joan Dorsey are both very proud retirees of the company. Though they enjoyed their careers immensely, they will tell you that it was not easy. Each had experiences that were good and memorable. But they also had others that were disappointing — in the air and on the ground, with customers and colleagues alike.

In 2008, during Black History Month, the African American Employee Resource Group of American Airlines (AAERG) brought the two of them together for the first time to honor and celebrate them and to say thank you for paving the way. During the events, fittingly titled “Celebrating Our First In Flight,” the two were visibly shaken at being recognized in such a way. Attendees at the event included members of the elite Tuskegee Airmen, pilots and flight attendants from other airlines, company executives and students from area schools who wanted to touch and feel history.

Last year during Black History Month, Fort Worth, Texas’ C.R. Smith Museum had the pleasure of hosting the traveling Black Wings exhibit, which was on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. Capt. Dave is featured in the exhibit, and the AAERG welcomed him back. Of the many great experiences I have encountered in my 27 years, leading the teams for their special recognitions will go down as one of my proudest moments ever. The day we named our first African-American vice president and our first vice president of diversity and inclusion (an African-American woman) are also memorable highlights.

As we celebrate Black History Month, enjoy the stories in American Way, which started openly recognizing Black History Month in 2010 with a special themed issue. This issue is one of their best. To read about two inspirational African-American leaders, click here (entrepreneur Sheila Johnson) and here (NBA star Chris Paul). Also, you will find information about our longtime partnership with the United Negro College Fund and learn how you can help us support deserving students who seek to fulfill their dream of a college education. As a proud alumni of a UNCF school, I am very fortunate to work for a company that makes investing in minority education a priority.

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La'Wonda P. Peoples
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