Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black force of elite pilots, emerged from combat in
World War II, they faced as much discrimination as they had before the war. It
was not until six decades later that their valor was recognized and they
received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can
Now, the roughly 330 pilots and members of the ground crew who are left from
about 16,000 who served are receiving another honor that has surpassed their
dreams: They are being invited to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as the
country’s first black president.
“I didn’t believe I’d live long enough to see something like this,” said Lt.
Col. Charles A. Lane Jr., 83, of Omaha, a retired Tuskegee fighter pilot who
flew missions over Italy.
“I would love to be there, I would love to be able to see it with my own eyes,”
he said, chuckling on the phone as he heard about the invitation. But, he said,
he had a “physical limitation” and was not sure he would be able to attend.
Thousands of people who participated in the fight for civil rights over several
decades helped pave the way for Mr. Obama’s triumph. But the Tuskegee Airmen
have a special place in history. Their bravery during the war — on behalf of a
country that actively discriminated against them — helped persuade President
Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
“The election of Barack Obama was like a culmination of a struggle that we were
going through, wanting to be pilots,” said William M. Wheeler, 85, a retired
Tuskegee combat fighter pilot who lives in Hempstead, N.Y. He tried to become a
commercial pilot after the war but was offered a job cleaning planes instead.
Mr. Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007,
when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. It said in part: “My career in
public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen
The invitation to his swearing-in was extended Tuesday by Senator Dianne
Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Joint Congressional
Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
Howard Gantman, staff director for the committee, said of the decision to invite
them: “They served honorably on behalf of our country, helped fight the battle
to overcome racial barriers and because of the historic nature of this election,
we thought they deserved to be there.”
Tickets to the Jan. 20 inauguration are the most sought-after commodity, with
more than 1.5 million people expected in Washington. Of the 240,000 tickets, the
airmen would have seats among the 30,000 on the terrace below the podium, along
with former members of Congress and others.
For logistical reasons, the actual invitation ended up with Robert D. Rose, a
retired Air Force captain in Bellevue, Neb., who was not a Tuskegee airman but
is the first vice president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an association of the
original airmen and their supporters.
The onus is on the association to extend the invitation to the airmen, who must
respond by Dec. 19. Each can bring one guest. The tickets are not transferable,
so if an airman cannot make it, he cannot give his ticket away.
“We’ll have a lot of happy fellows and ladies,” said Mr. Rose, who predicted
that many would try to attend.
He said that before the invitation was made Tuesday, he had already been trying
to get word to higher ups that the airmen would like to be invited. “I thought
if the name ‘Tuskegee’ surfaced at a high enough level, someone would recognize
it and it would make sense to invite them,” he said.
There is no firm handle on how many are still alive. More than 300 came forward
in March 2007 to collect their bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal
at a ceremony at the Capitol. The actual Gold Medal itself was given to the
In all, 994 pilots and about 15,000 ground personnel collectively known as the
Tuskegee Airmen were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in
Alabama from 1942 to 1946.
About 119 pilots and 211 ground personnel are still alive, according to Tuskegee
Airmen Inc. They are in their 80s and 90s, many are frail, and it is unclear how
many will be able to make the trip to Washington. And those who make it will
face various challenges: they will most likely have to walk some distance, the
weather could be harsh, the crowds will be huge and accommodations are scarce.
Still, these are some of the airmen who flew more than 150,000 sorties over
Europe and North Africa during World War II, escorting Allied bombers and
destroying hundreds of enemy aircraft. Some were taken prisoner. And most faced
fierce discrimination during and after the war.
“Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them
unfairly,” President Bush said in awarding the medals.
Mr. Rose, of the airmen’s association, said he saw a direct connection between
the Tuskegee experience and Mr. Obama’s election.
“The Tuskegee Airmen preceded Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and if they
hadn’t helped generate a climate of tolerance by integration of the military, we
might not have progressed through the civil rights era,” he said. ”We would have
seen a different civil rights movement, if we would have seen one at all.”
As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out
when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was
Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young
white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University
of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing.
Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy
white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there
can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.
Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even
four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero,
played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too
perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and
Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in
Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a
son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t
have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their
biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll
all have colorful administrations.”
What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own
white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From
My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her
liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about
this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently
contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one
who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter
fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and
“articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years
Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the
extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the
brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated
for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America —
have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and
clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often
saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder
in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so
There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same
two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The
implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial
parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were
overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a
former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an
intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a
punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai
Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist
like John Edwards.
The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is
long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s
campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible
organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the
ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed
to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could
never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday.
Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the
take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the
caucus states and that serves him to this day.
Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in
organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take
on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for
The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and
Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama
“lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in
February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well,
Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1.
Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions
that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.
But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the
political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his
position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger
than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly
the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower,
Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he
had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the
top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought
down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.
Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat
when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama
being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America
as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its
racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its
flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech
on race in Philadelphia in March.
Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to
Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made
the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book
about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the
year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving
decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the
film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility
that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage
would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s
secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a
Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at
NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)
Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades
since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the
United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black
and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where
America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter
who wins the election this year.
Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will
not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a
virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political
organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t
quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and
hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international
sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.
After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that
matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and
foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what
may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the
brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest
people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a
brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his
Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know
that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the
divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which
race is the most divisive of all.
Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in
the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most
Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he
win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as
history moves inexorably forward.
But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the
country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because
we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to
dig us out.
One minute after President Johnson last night signed the Civil Rights Act into
law, Jene Young, a 13-year-old Negro boy from Mississippi, walked into the
barber's shop of an hotel in Kansas City and asked for a haircut.
No Negro had been served in any part of the hotel since it
opened 60 years ago. The boy failed. But this morning he tried again; and this
time was successful.
However, Missouri is not Mississippi, it is likely to be some time yet before
Jene Young and his fellow Mississippi Negroes will be able to have their hair
cut in their own state in the barber's shops of their choice.
Reaction in other parts of the country to last night's historic step has been
varied. The Administration's hope has been that businessmen throughout the
South, who have hitherto been reluctant, would seize the opportunity to act
Apart from this there have been a few encouraging signs. The president of the
largest chain of cafeterias in the South has said that, rather than defy the
law, Negroes would be served. Negroes began receiving service last night, he
said. "We are going to obey the law," he added. "There is no other way." That
epitomises the reaction which the Administration here has hoped for from those
who until today had bitterly opposed the Civil Rights Bill.
In Dallas (Texas) a drive-in last night served Negroes for the first time. And
in the same city, a single Negro dined alone in an hotel which had earlier been
subjected to civil rights picketing.
Many Southern owners of "public accommodations," however, are going to refrain
from complying until the legality has been tested in the courts.
The Governor of Mississippi was asked today if he thought restaurants and hotel
owners should comply with the new laws. He replied: "I don't think they should.
I think it should be tested in the courts." In Mississippi an attempt to test
the voter registration provisions of the Act failed.
The Governor of Tennessee, on the other hand, today urged compliance with the
Governor Wallace of Alabama, predictably, reaffirmed today that he would oppose
the new law by not enforcing it in his State. The Governor of Florida expressed
the slightly enigmatic hope that the new law would take racial conflict off the
street and into the courts.
The Governor of Georgia was equally enigmatic. He said: "I hope that the
enforcement of these laws will never be needed in Georgia." The Governor of
Virginia thought the burden of making the law work successfully rested with the
The United States beyond doubt faces, in President
Kennedy's words, "a moral crisis as a country and as a people". The issue of
equality between men of different coloured skins has come to a head.
We seem, in fact, to be witnessing one of those upheavals
of the collective American conscience that can be frightening in their
suddenness when - as in the McCarthy years - fear is at the bottom of them, but
which can be awe-inspiring when the community searches in its own foundations
for the best resources of the puritanism that made them.
It is easy to say that white Americans would not be searching their consciences
and preparing to act on what they find there if Negroes had not now forced them
to do so by the vehemence of their words and deeds.
This is true enough. But the new Negro impatience and the new white awareness
are part of the same historic moment; the important thing is that the moment has
Now that, in the words of President Kennedy's powerful speech on Tuesday night,
"the fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and
South, where legal remedies are not at hand," and that "redress is sought in the
streets", the hope must be that the great debate will move swiftly.
The changes needed if, as the President says, "we are going to treat our fellow
Americans as we want to be treated," must be embodied in law. Mr Kennedy is now
about to ask Congress for legislation giving all Americans the right to be
served in facilities open to the public.
He wants to enhance the Federal Goverment's powers to pursue in the courts the
integration of schools, so that this burden is no longer left to private groups.
Legislation, though, is not enough. In a moving passage Mr Kennedy pointed out
that a Negro child born today has a life expectancy seven years shorter than a
white child and the prospect of earning only half as much.
This has been the fate of most minority groups in America (some of whom, like
Jews, would even now benefit from the President's proposed legislation); Negroes
are concerned it will not now be remedied by legal action only or by action in
the South only.
The equality the President calls for ought to mean that white residents in
northern suburbs do not automatically move out when the first Negro family moves
in. Will this come about?
Possibly, even probably: for only now are Americans everywhere having to answer
in practice, not in theory, "yes" or "no".
The civil rights campaign in the US continued into the
and was ended only after Congress
introduced legislation that overrode
the opposition of state and local government
THE City Bus Company of Montgomery has lost no time in
acting upon yesterday’s Supreme Court in a test ruling against segregation on
buses travelling within the state boundaries. Within 12 hours of the court’s
decision, the company announced that in the circumstances it had “no choice”
except to discontinue the practice of segregation of passengers on account of
race, and drivers will no longer assign seats to passengers by reason of their
Negroes who have joined in the boycott of the Montgomery company since last
December, in an effort to force the abandonment of its segregation practices,
have claimed that the company was losing $3,000 (approximately £1,000) a day as
a result, and the suggestion is made that the company has found the court’s
decision a useful screen behind which to retreat from an increasingly
The Attorneys-General of Virginia, South Carolina and Texas described the
decision as “another unwarranted invasion of state and municipal rights”.
Governor Griffin, of Georgia, promised that his state would oppose this “overt
usurpation of the liberties of the people.”
Segregation on inter-state buses was described by the Supreme Court as
unconstitutional in 1946, but it was only last November that the inter-state
commerce commission ordered that segregation should cease on all inter-state
transport and in waiting rooms used by inter-state travellers.
On This Day -
April 25, 1956, The Times, 25.4.2005.
May 25 1954
A pitiless subjection is outlawed
May 25 1954
decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that segregation in public
schools is unconstitutional has ended a legal battle of several generations.
It may be instructive to recall the landmarks of this constitutional struggle.
This controversy is rooted in memories of the Civil War. In 1875 Congress passed
the Civil Rights Act. But the act was silent on the subject of schools.
Exhausted by war, the energies of the North recoiled from the task of enforcing
the rights of the Negro, won at so tragic a cost.
The first case came before the Supreme Court in 1935, and especially from 1948
to 1950 the Court handed down decisions which struck at discrimination.
Physical violence has stained no campus. Negro students have entered freely into
the academic life of the various universities, but their record has by no means
always been very distinguished. Almost without exception they do not live in
mixed residences, bathe in the same pool with white students, or share the
exuberant social life.
When the public school cases were argued before the Court the American people
suddenly realised that the final stage of the constitutional struggle had been
reached. The Court, after two years of argument and after months of
deliberation, responded to that plea. By a creative exercise of judicial
statesmanship it was able to resolve all its discord and to speak with one voice
through the judgement read by Chief Justice Warren.
This unanimity has in itself had a profound influence upon the country. It has
subdued many extremists to a whimper of protest and given massive reinforcement
to the counsels of moderation.
The Court also gained credit for caution, and for refusing to bludgeon the South
into hasty and provocative action, by wisely deciding to hear additional
argument in October on the transition in establishing the non-segregated school
system. Finally, as significant as the gallant restraint of most responsible
leaders of Southern opinion, is the exemplary caution of Negroes themselves.
They have won a great victory, but they are walking quietly in their hour of
They know they can summon any hostile or recalcitrant Southern state to the bar
of the Supreme Court; but they are issuing no threats nor proclaiming any
manifestos of defiance. It will take many years before the full harvest of the
Court's decision can be gathered, but a brave beginning has been made.
A remarkable case has been before the law courts of
Louisiana. The plaintiff, Augustus Johnson, a negro, was in the employment of
the Cromwell line of steamers, and earning over 500 dollars yearly. While some
carboys of sulphuric acid were being landed there was an explosion, by which one
man was killed and several were injured.
Johnson's eyesight was entirely destroyed by this
lamentable accident; he brought an action against the steamship company for
damages, and a jury awarded him 10,000 dollars. The defendants regarded this sum
as excessive, and applied for a new trial before the United States Circuit
When the matter came on for argument, Judge Billings asked how much would have
been allowed before the war to the master of a slave who had been thus injured.
Mr Forman, the counsel for the negro, very properly protested against such a
view of the matter.
The slaveholder, he said, would have received "whatever the slave would sell for
on the block", added to a "sum sufficient to enable the master to support" the
slave during his life. But the master could "recover nothing for the pain and
agony of body and mind of the slave".
That was not a test of "amount of damages proper to be allowed now". The negro
was no longer a chattel or to be valued as a chattel, but was on the plane of a
freeman and a citizen, and all distinctions on account of race or colour were
abolished. There is still, it would appear, a colour line even in the American
law courts, for the Judge has decided to grant a new trial unless the plaintiff
will accept 5,000 dollars - half of what the jury awarded. Does anyone suppose
that Judge Billings would have taken similar action if the plaintiff's skin had
History inverts itself
The American papers recently had to record an elsewhere amusing inversion of a
famous situation in history. It is now 117 years since Boston harbour was, as
Carlyle says, "black with unexpected tea" protest against a tea duty.
To-day the tea traders of Boston, New York, and Chicago are petitioning both
Houses at Washington for the reimposition of a tea duty of 10 per cent. They
complain that as the United States are [sic] the only nation in the world which
admit teas duty free, foreign countries have special facilities for unloading on
American soil their low-priced and inferior stock.
This petition is received by the same democracy, now a centenarian, which when a
spirited child, unloaded the foreign tea into the bay.