When Paul Pitts served in the U.S. Air Force decades ago, things were different for black men serving in the military.
"When I was a young man, a white captain told me there would never be a black pilot in the United States Air Force," Pitts said. "I said, 'With all due respect, sir, you're a liar. Before I'm dead in my grave, there will be black pilots, male and female... Col. Jones is part of that legacy."
Lt. Col. Otis Jones, 41, is the executive officer to the vice commander of mobility support at Scott Air Force Base. Raised in Selma, Ala., Jones has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and two master's degrees, as he is about to go back for a third. He is a senior pilot, and was the keynote speaker at the Edwardsville Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Mt. Joy Baptist Church Monday.
Jones spoke about growing up in Selma in the 1970s and 80s, attending desegregated schools and sports as a benefit of those who marched only a decade or two before him. He said that as a young man, he took for granted the sacrifices of parents and grandparents who marched across a bridge to Montgomery that he crossed every day.
"The soldiers who fought for freedom abroad (in World War II) only to find that same freedom denied to them," Jones said. "Now today they trust me to fly some of the most expensive planes in the U.S. Air Force."
Jones said that to dismiss the changes that have been made, "to claim that nothing has changed," dishonors the sacrifices that so many made.
"Now we can do more than just imagine being pilots, doctors, lawyers, ambassadors, Supreme Court justices and even president," he said. "Because they marched, we became more free and America became more fair, not just for us, but for all people. We are not trapped by the mistakes of history... I am the master of my own fate, I am the captain of my soul."
However, he also said it dishonors those sacrifices to suggest that the struggle is over. "There is unfinished business," he said.
Other speakers included Debra Pitts, principal of Bethalto High School; Pitts, a member of the Edwardsville District 7 school board; and Pastor Steve Jackson of Mt. Joy Baptist Church.
The Edwardsville NAACP and League of Women Voters held a voter registration drive following the ceremony.
Jackson said it was key to focus on the lessons of the past while proclaiming the promise of the future.
"The young people will not go along with the old thinking," Jackson said.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.