BY THE TAIL: The 'Tuskegee' story captures essence of Civil Rights struggle

Black History Month is a time to reflect upon the individuals and events that shaped the African American experience and the civil rights movement, particularly those bearing a strong Michigan connection.

Most of the figures were men and women of peace, like a man with a dream, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a then 42-year-old seamstress, Rosa Parks, whose refusal to take a back seat on the bus in 1955 helped galvanize resistance to racial segregation. But some were warriors, who killed and died for their nation. The legendary Tuskegee Airmen fought a battle on two fronts in the air against the Axis powers in Europe and at home against racism and intolerance.

Since the expression fighting for freedom is so common today, it is especially astonishing that these black citizen soldiers were willing to sacrifice their lives for a system so badly flawed, one in which their freedom came with intolerable compromises.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt some say at the urging of his wife Eleanor ordered in 1941 the creation of an all-black flight training unit at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Howard University student Yancy Williams had already filed suit in federal court to force the military to accept black trainees.

Former Tuskegee Airmen and retired Lt. Col. Herbert Carter later said, Can you imagine, with the war clouds heavy over Europe, a citizen of the United States having to sue his government to be accepted into training so he could fly and fight and die for his country?

The Tuskegee program was originally an experiment that was expected to fail but, as Carter said, The mistake they made was that they forgot to tell us.

The military brass expected that coloreds, as they called them, would be unable to operate a complex flying machine and that the program would be quietly shelved. Among the many indignities the trainees suffered, they were not issued rifles like white cadets.

The first class was only 13 men, all already civilian pilots and all with college degrees, including some Ph.D.s. Their performance in the course was exceptional. Eventually, nearly 1,000 pilots passed through the program.

In September of that year, Capt. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a West Point graduate, became the first African American officer to solo an Army aircraft. He later became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force.

Many months passed with no combat assignment for the black units. In 1943, when the War Department could drag its feet no longer, the first elements of the black squadrons were deployed in North Africa, Sicily, and the rest of Europe. Their performance was outstanding and one flight shot down six German aircraft on its first mission. They also became so proficient at escorting heavy bombers that the crews of those aircraft came to call them Red Tail Angels, referring to the distinctive red the unit chose to paint the tails of their fighter aircraft. The nickname was eventually shortened to Red Tails.

At the end of the war, the 332nd Fighter Group had shot down 112 enemy aircraft and destroyed 150 on the ground. Their effect on enemy transportation was also significant with the unit destroying more than 600 railroad cars and 40 boats and barges. In one noteworthy engagement, they even managed to sink a destroyer. By any measure, the Tuskegee experiment was a resounding success.

In addition to their military impact, the Tuskegee Airmen arguably played a role in the civil rights struggle that can place them in the same conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, the Little Rock Nine, and Detroits own Rosa Parks.

The Tuskegee Airmen story is one of the most important in American history, says Judge Damon Keith of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the time the airmen emerged, our armed forces were completely segregated. All they needed was an opportunity. They said, Give us a chance, and then they took it. Great young black pilots were protecting our country. It helped to break down barriers all over the country. Americas a better place because of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Now, to see President Barack Obama shows how much progress weve made, Judge Keith added.

Although the airmen are primarily associated with Tuskegee, Ala., where their main training facility was located, they have a strong Michigan connection.  Some of the airmen trained at what was then Selfridge Field (now Selfridge Air National Guard Base) and Oscoda Field. Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., was founded in Detroit in 1972 with the aim of memorializing the group and inspiring young Americans with their story.  There is also a Tuskegee Airmen National Museum on the grounds of venerable Fort Wayne in southwest Detroit.

The late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young trained as a navigator/bombardier with the 477th Bombardment Group. The 477th was still training when the war ended and never saw combat.

At Freeman Field in Indiana, 162 black Air Corps officers, including Young, defied their commander and repeatedly entered an officers club that had been off limits to them. They made their protest by the book and entered and left in small groups. After a confrontation with the club officer, the airmen were placed under house arrest in their quarters and faced court martial. Sometimes referred to as the Freeman Field Mutiny, this protest action was one of the important steps that eventually led to President Harry S. Trumans executive order in 1948 desegregating the American military.

In April of 1945, the more serious charges were dropped, but it was more than 50 years before the Pentagon finally removed reprimands from the officers files.

Another well-known Detroiter, the late attorney Milton Henry, also was involved in resisting the institutional racism in the military of the era while he was serving as a Tuskegee Airman. According to The New York Times, while he was stationed in Alabama, Henry punched a white bus driver who had demanded that Henry use the vehicles rear entrance. Reportedly a group of British cadets on the bus protected him from retaliation, probably saving him from serious injury.

Henry also was involved in an incident that preceded the organized Freeman Field protest when he refused to leave the segregated officers club at Selfridge Field.

Judge Keith considered Henry a friend and admired both his military service and the distinguished career that followed.

Milton Henry was a great lawyer and a man of courage, Keith says.  He graduated from Yale Law School, one of the tops in the country, and was a strong advocate for civil rights.

The exploits of the Airmen were finally recognized when the entire group was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in March 2007 in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin wrote and sponsored the bipartisan bill authorizing the award and Michigans other senator, Debbie Stabenow, was a co-sponsor.

President George Bush said in presenting the award,  These men felt a special sense of urgency. They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens.

The President then saluted the Airmen, some walking with canes and others in wheelchairs, and said he hoped the gesture helped atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgiveable dignities that the pilots had endured.

In his remarks, Sen. Levin talked about the remarkable record the group compiled in a relatively brief span.

The statistics of their heroism are overwhelming: More than 15,000 combat sorties, 260 enemy aircraft destroyed, 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and Legions of Merit, and more than 700 Air Medals and clusters, Levin said.  They were so proficient that white bomber pilots did not just come to accept escorts by the Tuskegee Airmen, they requested the Tuskegee Airmen.

George Washington was the first American to receive the medal in 1776 and only 300 more have been awarded in more than 200 years.

When originally proposing the award in 2004, Sen. Levin made a point to stress the post-war influence of the Tuskegee Airmen, in addition to their combat record and fight for equality in the military.

Those who received flight training were instrumental in breaking the segregation barrier, he said. A total of 155 Tuskegee Airmen originated in Michigan and I wish to recognize each one of them.

In addition to government recognition, the Tuskegee Airmen have received more attention from popular culture, including Hollywood, in recent years. The HBO film Tuskegee Airmen, starring Laurence Fishburne, was released in 1995. Of late, the film Red Tails, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, recently debuted in theaters.

Legendary filmmaker George Lucas of Star Wars fame is executive producer of Red Tails and spent his own money to make the film.

Its a fantastic story, Lucas said in an interview with USA Today. Its taken me 23 years to make the movie. Twenty of them were spent trying to get the script right. I wanted to show them as American heroes, much as in a World War II movie like Flying Leathernecks.

The project was difficult, in part, because Lucas was never able to get any of the Hollywood studios interested in the project. He says that meeting and working with real Tuskegee Airmen made up for the frustration.

I worked for 20 years with these guys (surviving Tuskegee Airmen), Lucas said.  Twice a year wed have conferences and hear their stories and ask them questions. Theyre great guys. The more you read about them the more astonished you are at what great heroes and great people they are. A lot of them have gone on to do great things.

By Steve Thorpe

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