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Black History Month; PBGC welcomes a Distinguished Guest

Friday February 21, 2014

On Feb. 11, 2014, PBGC staff witnessed living black history as the agency's Chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG) and the Special Emphasis Program (SEP) hosted the annual Black History Month program. With the national theme in mind, Civil Rights in America, this year's program was widely deemed one of the greatest in PBGC history.

Col. Charles McGee, an original, and now retired, member of the Tuskegee Airmen delivered the keynote address to the agency's staff as they filled the building's training institute in celebration of Black History Month. McGee's career in the legendary all-black 332nd Fighter Group-12th Air Force began in 1944. He is among the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed forces.

During WWII black pilots were trained at a segregated air base in Tuskegee, Ala., and became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. At the helm of P-39 fighters they flew hundreds of patrol and attack missions, and were also used to escort B-17 and B-24 bombers. The airmen were portrayed in the 2012 motion picture, "Red Tails," produced by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. The Red Tails nickname came from the ruby-toned tails of the airmen's planes.

In his address, McGee recounted the struggles he and his fellow soldiers faced as African Americans in the Air Force. Throughout World War II, African Americans in a number of U.S. states were subject to Jim Crow laws and all branches of the military were racially segregated. But these obstacles didn't stop McGee and his peers from stepping up and fighting for freedom at home and abroad. He stressed the "Three Ps," which helped to shape his illustrious career as a Tuskegee Airman: persevere, prepare, and perform. "Excellence should always be your goal," McGee said.

On Jan. 31, 1973, McGee retired from the Air Force after 30 years of military service.

Although McGee was the headliner, the program also included an address from Shirley Jones, BIG's Region XI President, who gave "names to the nameless," when she talked about the four little girls who were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham in 1963: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNairthey. They are known as the "Birmingham Four."

The girls were also remembered in the documentary, "4 Little Girls," by filmmaker Spike Lee in 1997.

For Jones, an Assistant General Counsel at the United States Government Accountability Office, the topic was extremely personal as she was a little girl herself from Birmingham at the time of the bombing. This event marked the turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, and ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Both McGee and Jones touched on the disparities African Americans faced early in their careers and lives—McGee with his experience in the military and Jones with her memories of racial inequality as a child. Some of these disparities endure as the retirement security racial divide continues to widen.

While every racial group faces the risk of not being adequately prepared for retirement, people of color are significantly more at risk of inadequate retirement savings.

In a recent National Institute on Retirement Security study, only 54 percent of African Americans have an employer sponsored retirement. This disparity is much more substantial in the private sector than the public sector. In the private sector, only 15 percent of African American employees have employer sponsored retirement plans, compared to 10 percent in the public sector.

As a result, three out of four African American households have less than $10,000 in retirement savings. The number jumps to $30,000 among those households near retirement, which is clearly not enough.

Although retirement security is bleak among all races, the picture of African American retirement security is even more dismal. With lower wages, lack of employer based retirement accounts, and individual retirement accounts, African Americans are simply not sufficiently contributing to their future.