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NMSU alum to receive Congressional Gold Medal

Las Cruces resident Dr. James Williams, a 1947 graduate of New Mexico State University, will be in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, March 29, to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, along with about 350 of his fellow World War II servicemen known as the Tuskegee Airmen.



Las Cruces resident Dr. James Williams, a 1947 graduate of New Mexico State University, will be in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, March 29, to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, along with about 350 of his fellow World War II servicemen known as the Tuskegee Airmen. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The medal is being awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen, collectively, in recognition of their unique military record, which inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces. The medal will be placed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and each serviceman will receive a replica of the medal to keep. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress for an outstanding deed or act of service. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Gen. Colin Powell are expected to speak at the ceremony.

Williams served in the 477th Bombardment Group and 99th Fighter Squadron, both units that were part of the group of men and women who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He was originally assigned to the Medical Corps because he had started college with the intention of pursing a pre-med degree, but he wanted to be part of the aviation training program and so he made his way to the Pentagon and requested a transfer.

This request launched him into the middle of a fight for equality that was emerging in the Armed Forces. In fact, Williams was one of 101 black officers to be arrested in 1945 at Freeman Air Field for refusing to sign a document that would have kept officer's clubs segregated, an action that could have resulted in severe punishment.

When asked why he chose to be part of the fight for equality, Williams shrugs and tells the story of his father, Jasper Williams, the first NAACP president west of the Mississippi River and a college-educated school principal who lost his job for giving school children President Lincoln's birthday off as a holiday.

Williams was also influenced by his mother, Clara Belle Williams, the first black student to graduate from NMSU, in 1937. Clara Belle's NMSU degree was the second bachelor's degree she earned. In 2005, NMSU named its English building Clara Belle Williams Hall in her honor.

Following his service, Williams would go on to earn two degrees from Creighton University, open a medical clinic in Chicago, become a physician for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and meet with President Kennedy in an effort to integrate the nation's hospitals.

Williams is a lifetime member of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a foundation dedicated to preserving the history of America's first black military airmen. He said he supports the group especially because of their efforts to increase the number of black males flying in today's U.S. Air Force, which he said is only about 2 percent.

Williams will be joined at the ceremony by his wife of 56 years, Willeen; his son, Dr. James Williams II, an Albuquerque surgeon; and his daughter, Brenda Payton Jones, a columnist for the Oakland Tribune.