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  • This is another article I wrote for the Navy Memorial’s Navy Log Blog a couple of years ago. I was covering the Annual Veterans’ Conference, which was held at the Memorial, and had the incredible and humbling privilege of spending some time with a number of the original Tuskegee Airmen. This was my report of that experience.

    Everyone knows of the work and impact on civil rights that Martin Luther King, Jr. had, beginning in the mid-50’s. This is well known and very much a part of our fabric and institutional knowledge as Americans. We also know the exploits of Jackie Robinson, who along with Branch Rickey dared to challenge the color barrier and integrate professional baseball in 1947. What courage that took! Not as well known, but certainly every bit as essential and impactful in the fight against racial prejudice in America is the remarkable story of the Tuskegee Airmen. These true heroes challenged a long-standing prejudice concerning blacks in the military well before Robinson and King did their good work.
  • During a panel yesterday at the Navy Memorial, part of the 13th Annual AVC Veterans’ conference, we heard the stories of a few of the remaining airmen, including one of their early leaders, Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr., along with Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ivan Ware, an original Tuskegee Airman who served as part of the unit's ground support, and Lt. Calvin Spann, a Tuskegee Airman who flew 26 combat missions in Europe during the war.

    Dr. Brown held us spellbound as he told a compelling story about struggle and equal opportunity in our country. He set the scene with the story of a commissioned report that the military conducted in the late ‘20’s, which essentially held that Blacks were not capable of serving in the military, that they were inferior in many of the traits necessary for a military man to be successful, and should not be considered for military service. Dr. Brown made it clear that he did not believe that those who compiled this report were bad people, they were simply caught up in the mystique and mistaken beliefs of the country at that time in our history.
  • Dr. Brown’s father was part of FDR’s “Black Cabinet”, in charge of health issues within the black community. Dr. Brown himself received a robust education at some of the finer schools available to blacks at the time, joined the ROTC program at Howard University, became a Lieutenant at age 18, and went on to help start the Tuskegee Airmen, under the command of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. “We beat discrimination and the stereotypes”, he proudly told us.

    They built an airbase to train the Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama, and the airmen went on to build a reputation during the war that was second to none. “Colonel Davis brought a great degree of discipline to our squad. He made sure that we didn’t go off hunting down enemy planes to improve our numbers of kills – we had to stay close to our bombers to protect and ensure they remained safe throughout a mission. We did this better than any other fighter squadron in the entire corps – we had the record for the fewest bombers lost”.
  • All 3 Airmen shared amazing tales of their feats and death-defying exploits throughout the war. But the most amazing accomplishment of all came in 1948, when, based largely on their demonstrated excellence, capability and heroism, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the military and paving the way for much of what was to come in the following decades in terms of Civil Rights victories!

    These men did not seem to mind that they were not as well known or famous as the other early pioneers of Civil Rights in this country. They carried themselves with the quiet pride and dignity of those who know what they did, and are grateful to have been able to make a difference.

    However, for me, whenever I think of the pioneers of civil rights in this country from this point forward, high up in the sky, above the likenesses of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Jackie Robinson sliding into home plate with the winning run, will soar the proud planes and images of these Tuskegee Airmen!
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