African-American Military History: Making History Every Day–Brig. Gen M.J. Kight

California’s Own “First”

Someone told me awhile ago that “History is made by ordinary people doing extraordinary things every day.” I don’t know that the person I heard t from was the originator of this thought, but it struck me as true. I thought about that as I pondered this chapter in our African-American Military History series.

The late Major and Socorro Green lived in my adopted hometown of Monterey, California. [I went to high school there]. Their daughter, Mary, had just completed college and gotten married, when their new son-in-law decided to join the Air Force. And Mary thought, I could do that, too. So on Valentine’s Day, i1974, the former Mary Josephine Green became 2nd Lt. Mary J. Kight, USAF.

Lt. Kight began her military career in billets typical for women officers at that time. She was a personnel officer at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. In those days, there was a high degree of segregation between male and female military members, at least officially. The number of positions for female officers was greatly restricted. And all the women who were not nurses or other medical personnel, were inducted into a semi-autonomous corps called “Women in the Air Force,” or “WAF” for short.

Promotion opportunities for women were restricted by law. For most of the time from the creation of the WAF in 1947 until 1971, there was just one authorized colonel’s position in the WAF. There were no women generals until 1971, just a few years before Mary Kight was commissioned.

One of Lt. Kight’s jobs at Fairchild AFB was commander of the WAF squadron. She spent nearly five years at Fairchild, leaving there for assignment to Headquarters Strategic Air Command (HQ SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. By this time, the WAF had been abolished and women fully integrated into the Air Force, at least officially. The statutory limits on promotions had been abolished, a woman (Jeanne Holm) had been promoted to Major General, and women had been admitted to the United States Air Force Academy. As a practical matter, however, women were still largely concentrated in personnel and administrative positions.

HQ SAC was a place of almost legendary proportions–the command and control center of America’s nuclear-armed bombers and missiles, the most lethal military force ever assembled. It was definitely a male-oriented culture, and not any or every man could succeed in the SAC culture. But Kight did well. She recently told Sacramento Magazine that she did not feel intimidated. After a year at HQ SAC, Kight left active duty to join the Nebraska Air National Guard. Again, she found herself in “admin” jobs.

But in the mid-1980’s, no longer married, Capt Kight transferred to the California Air National Guard, being stationed with the 144th Fighter Wing at Fresno. The Air Force had continued to evolve with respect to women and now Kight found herself on the flightline as an aircraft maintenance officer. For ten years, Kight helped keep the 144th’s F-4D’s and later, air defense F-16C’s mission-capable.

Her hard work and affable style paid off with a promotion to lieutenant colonel and assignment as the commander of the 144th Aircraft Gneration Squadron. In the meantime, Kight had completed Air Command and Staff College.

In 1998, Lt. Col. Kight was selected to attend Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama–a rare honor for an Air Guard officer, and usually a portent of things to come.

In 2001, Kight was promoted to full colonel and was given command of the Mission Support Squadron. Then, in 2004, Mary Kight was summoned to Air Guard headquarters in Sacramento to serve as Assistant Adjutant General. No woman had ever served in that position in the 57 year history of the California Air National Guard. Lightning struck twice more in 2006 when Kight was promoted to brigadier general and assigned as Assistant Adjutant General for the entire California National Guard–both Army and Air–the number 2 officer in the California National Guard.

Mary J. Kight is the first woman line officer and first African-American to be promoted to brigadier general in the California Air National Guard.

As Assistant Adjutant General, she helps oversee the 18,000 soldiers and 5,000 airmen who make up the California National Guard. Many of these soldiers and airmen have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or the Gulf Coast for hurricane relief. California has the most tasked National Guard organization in the country.

I served 13 of my 34 years of military service in the California Air National Guard and had the pleasure of working from time to time with Mary Kight. She’s the quality officer and person one would expect of an Air Force brigadier general. She’s one of the current heirs to the legacy of Charles Young and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.

And she’s making history every day doing her “ordinary” tasks!

Brig. Gen. Mary J. Kight, CA ANG
Assistant Adjutant General
Joint Forces Headquarters-California
Sacramento, California

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Craig

4 Responses to “African-American Military History: Making History Every Day–Brig. Gen M.J. Kight”

  • Craig Manson says:

    Thanks, Miriam and other commenters. You know,I’ve been considering something to write a major piece about–and here it was right under my nose! Thanks for the enocuragement.

  • Miriam says:

    Craig, these have been great…you should write a book!

  • Tim Agazio says:

    Craig,

    I have enjoyed reading your series on military leaders. As a recently retired Army officer, I appreciate reading about all the military people you have highlighted, but especially enjoyed the article about Charles Young. In fact, When I was attending school at Fort Leavenworth I wrote a paper on the Buffalo soldiers and it included a small piece on him…as you noted, he was one of the great, but generally forgotten, soldiers in Army history…thanks for remembering him.

  • Becky says:

    Thank you for presenting the story of Brig Gen Kight. Having served in the military (Navy) myself from 1969-1979 I know what the ‘atmosphere’ was for active duty women at that time and am fully aware of the restrictions and limitations regarding assignments and opportunities. She had it more difficult being a woman, a black person and an officer. Anyway, for me, her story is truly inspiring. Sounds like the military has made some improvements in the past 30 years, at least, I hope they have!


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