In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen

In 1925, the US Army undertook a study of the use of black Americans in the military that infamously concluded that "Negroes are a sub-species of the human family" and categorically rejected the idea that they could serve as pilots in the Army Air Corps.

In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen is a film that tells the moving and heroic story of America's first black fighter group from the its inception to the present. I had a chance to see it this past weekend.  I have a weakness for documentaries and find oral histories especially powerful.  This film consists of interviews with the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the "Redtails" who flew fighter missions over Africa, the Mediterranean, and Hitler's Europe during World War II.  The film traces the origins of the program at Tuskegee, as well as giving a bit of background on the youth of the pilots and interviewing the widows or surviving friends and family of those, black and white, who pushed to establish a black corps of pilots in the then-segregated American military.

The Tuskegee Airmen knew from the start that they were fighting a two front war: one against the racist empire of Hitler and the other against the racist culture of the United States that everywhere reminded them that they were second class citizens. Their commander, Benjamin O. Davis, was a graduate of West Point who had endured the "silent treatment" from fellow cadets and teachers for his entire tenure there.  No one ever spoke to him except about official matters. Unlike every other cadet, he had no roommate and he was forced to dine alone the entire time he was there.  And those under his command had all suffered similar indignities their entire lives.  So did the white officers who took part in their training.  Yet this shameful treatment made them all the tougher and more competitive.

The Tuskegee Airmen began as an experiment in 1939 to train black pilots.  It was greeted with intense skepticism, but when Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit to the Tuskegee Institute and took a flight with one of the pilots, she came back very impressed and the program received a great public relations boost.  The men who volunteered underwent rigorous scrutiny and they themselves were aware that they could not be merely competent: they had to be the best of the best because they had to contend not only with German pilots who wanted to kill them, but racist Americans who were looking for any excuse to call the program a failure.  They established a service record of valor and excellence, accompanying bombing missions as fighter escorts throughout the war and even managing (in prop-driven airplanes!) to shoot down three German jets over Berlin in the waning days of the war in Europe.  66 of them were killed, and one of the men interviewed in the film describes his experience of being shot down over France, his imprisonment in a German POW camp, his liberation, and his visit to the horror factory that was Dachau concentration camp.

And yet, incredibly, when these heroes returned from saving the United States from Nazi tyranny, they were greeted as "n*ggers" and welcomed back to a country and a military that still practiced strict segregation of theaters, restaurants, water fountains--and officer's clubs.  So, being good Americans and good soldiers who had just beaten a racist regime in Europe, they took the fight for freedom home.  Ordered to comply with racist policy at Freeman Field they refused to do so for a reason as old as St. Augustine: because an unjust law is no law at all. (Martin Luther King, Jr. would later cite Augustine in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail").

Faced with the witness of such heroic men and their sacrifices, the policy of segregation was seen by more and more Americans as the injustice it was.  One of those Americans was President Harry Truman, who signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, effectively desegregating the military. This was a major prelude to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The film, full of interviews with the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen takes us through the Civil Rights Movement to 2007 and their receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal.  The sight of these guys breaking down in tears at the recognition of their achievement was deeply moving to me.  Even more moving was their deep gratitude for the country they fought to defend, in spite of the way it treated them.  The thought, "Now that is a man!" was irresistible when one of them described as "irritating" the humiliating treatment he received on his return to the United States.  He refused to let anything stop his determination to win through both in war and in peace.  You come away from the film thinking, "These are the best of us."  It made me think of Jesus' remark that a prophet is always without honor in his own home--and that wisdom is vindicated by her children.

In Their Own Words is going to be showing one night only on March 29 in theatres nationwide.  If you can catch it, you should.  A fitting way to say "Thank you" to a generation of great men and women whose equal we shall not see again.