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Sumter County Council Chairman recounts Sumter integration with 9 AF (AFCENT) Airmen

  • Published
  • By Capt. Lauren Linscott
  • Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. – Ninth Air (Air Forces Central) commander, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, and AFCENT senior leaders welcomed Sumter County Council Chairman, James T. McCain Jr., to speak to Airmen at Shaw and in multiple locations in the Middle East through a video teleconference Sept. 12, 2022.

Since taking command in July, Grynkewich held this engagement in support of his first priority for the command: value everyone and their contributions. McCain’s life story is one that shows how this kind of inclusion can positively impact a life.

His story is also one that demonstrates the negative impact exclusion can have on an individual and future generations through generational trauma.

Having been born and raised in Sumter, McCain offered Airmen a unique perspective of the important role the base has had in pushing for inclusivity in Sumter.

“A lot of Sumter leaders focus on the economic impact that Shaw has had on Sumter, which is currently over $2.5 billion annually” said McCain. “However, I think the social impacts that Shaw has had on Sumter is just as important.”

McCain went on to describe the racially segregated and racist environment he experienced growing up in Sumter in the early 1960’s.

“I don’t have a lot of high school memories. I’ve repressed most of them.” he said. “But one I do remember is during a pep rally when the few black students in my school would all sit together. The band would play ‘Dixie,’ and the white students would wave Confederate flags over us.”

However, while Sumter did not offer many positive experiences for McCain, he has many fond memories of “Shaw Field,” as it used to be known.

“I couldn’t go to the public swimming pools in Sumter, but I could swim at the pools on Shaw,” he said. “I even became a lifeguard because of that access.”

Beyond swimming pools, though, McCain also discussed how Sumter schools became integrated due to a court case filed by Shaw Airmen in 1964 to block the assignment of students on Shaw to schools on the basis of race or color.

These trailblazing Airmen won, and the schools in Sumter desegregated in 1965.

However, even that shift wasn’t enough for McCain to want to stay in Sumter. He moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College and began a career with the United Parcel System, travelling all over the world to computerize UPS operations.

He returned to Sumter to take care of his mother in 2009, but he returned to a town different than he remembered.

“In the forty years since I had left, I now saw Sumter as an international town,” he said. “Even if Shaw Airmen are not here for long, we have people who had lived all over the world here in Sumter. That didn’t happen when I was young, and having my own international view from working with UPS, it helped me to become a part of Sumter, too.”

At the conclusion of McCain’s story, Grynkewich offered his thanks to McCain and his perspective on where the U.S. military stands today on integrating minorities into the force.

“We as a U.S. military have made plenty of progress,” said Grynkewich, “But there is plenty more to be made when it comes to race, gender, LGBTQ+, and in other areas. We can’t rest on our laurels. We don’t want to go back.”

McCain closed by thanking the Airmen for their service, meeting many of the Airmen in the room and taking questions.

When asked by one attendee if he had any bitterness toward Sumter for its treatment of him, McCain shook his head in the negative, “Morehouse College and my daddy taught me to be bigger than that.”

“Besides,” he said. “Why would I look to the past when the future is so bright?”

*Author’s note: on behalf of 9 AF (AFCENT), we would like to thank Mr. McCain for sharing his story with us!