Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, Jr. became the new Air Force chief of staff on Thursday, making history as the first African American to lead one of the military services.
Brown succeeded Gen. David Goldfein, as the Air Force’s 22nd chief of staff at a ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, where the significance of the moment was not lost on Brown.
“This is a very historic day for our nation, and I do not take this moment lightly,” he said in remarks to an audience of VIP’s at one of the base’s spacious hangars.
“Today is possible due to the perseverance of those who went before me, serving as an inspiration to me and so many others,” he said.
He mentioned those forebears as the Tuskegee Airmen, the trailblazing World War II fighter unit that was made up entirely of African Americans.
Brown specifically named Gen. Ben Davis. Brig. Gen. Charles McGee and Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James, the first Black four-star general in U.S. military history.
He also described Edward Dwight, a special guest at Thursday’s event, as an inspiration. The former Air Force pilot was the first African American astronaut candidate in the 1960’s.
“It was because of their trials and tribulations in breaking barriers that I can address you today as the Air Force chief of staff,” said Brown.
Gen. Colin Powell was the first African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990’s, but he did so as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — not because he was the Army chief of staff.
At Thursday’s ceremony Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also highlighted the historic moment in his remarks.
“In CQ, we have all that is good about America,” Milley said, referring to Brown by his pilot call sign.
“He not only represents exceptional competence, as well, and strategic intellect and impeccable character. But in CQ, we see that America can be a better place,” he added.
Milley characterized Thursday’s ceremony as being about more than Goldfein and Brown — saying that it was representative of an idea that military service members swear to defend and for which they are willing to give their lives.
“We are all Americans, and we are all — every one of us — born free,” said Milley. “And we will rise or fall based on our knowledge or skills or attributes or competence.”
“We’re going to be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin,” he added.
The nation’s top military officer also said, “we can all see the living embodiment of that idea” in Goldfein and Brown.
An experienced pilot and senior commander, Brown was most recently in charge of all Air Forces in the Pacific and previously directed the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In June, as part of the national reckoning about race that followed George Floyd’s death while in police custody, Brown released a video recounting his personal experiences with race.
That included the balancing act he and his sister experienced as the only African Americans in their elementary school, and then trying to fit into a high school where half the kids were African American.
In the Air Force he recalled being the only African American in his flight squadron and sometimes being asked if he was a pilot. And as he rose through the senior ranks he was often “the only African American in the room.”
Brown said that as the chief of staff he hoped he would have the skills needed in leading during difficult times and to make improvements in diversity so that every airman could reach their potential.
“I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead, participate in and listen to necessary conversations on racism, diversity and inclusion,” said Brown. “I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead those willing to take committed and sustained action make our Air Force better.”