Fighting and Flying for Civil Rights

By Nicholas Stimler
Literary and Casting Director

At crucial moments in American history, those viewed to have the least civil and social standing have risen to prove their claim to full inalienable rights through distinguished and honorable service in defense of their country.

At the start of the American Civil War, free and enslaved black men were not permitted to join the Union Army. In February of 1862, the renowned escaped slave, abolitionist and publisher Frederick Douglass described this inequality:

Colored men were good enough to fight under Washington. They are not good enough to fight under McClellan.... They were good enough to help win American Independence but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion.

It wasn’t until January 1863, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that free and enslaved black men were permitted to serve in combat. The War Department then established the Bureau of Colored Troops, an official acknowledgement of the need for black men’s service in the war-ravaged nation. By the end of the Civil War, one in 12 Union soldiers was black.

Nearly 119,000 former slaves fought in 39 key battles to break their bonds, receiving 21 Medals of Honor. Because of these sacrifices, Americans’ views on race began to change. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution passed in Congress. These Amendments ended slavery and established that race, color or previous servitude may not be used to deny or abridge a citizen’s right to vote. However, it would take another century before African Americans’ dreams of advances in equality would truly take flight.

Though they served with distinction in conflicts on behalf of the United States after the American Civil War, African Americans were not permitted to fly for the U.S. Military prior to 1940. Pressure from civil rights organizations and the black press spurred the War Department to announce in 1939 that the Civil Aeronautics Authority would begin training “colored personnel” for aviation service. Furthermore, Congress required all armed services to enlist “Negroes” to combat the Axis Powers in World War II.

In 1941, an African-American pursuit squadron was formed in Tuskegee, Alabama. They were known as the “Tuskegee Airmen,” a term that came to refer to all African Americans trained by the Army Air Corps to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee program was the center for African-American aviation during WWII. These soldiers embarked on pivotal missions in Africa and, most significantly, safely escorted numerous bombers on vital missions into European enemy territory. Their aerial finesse and skill earned the Tuskegee Airmen the admiration and respect of many in the armed services and in the civilian population. The Tuskegee Airmen conclusively proved that African Americans could fly and manage highly technical aircraft. Their achievements, combined with other African Americans’ heroic WWII service, paved the way for
full integration of the U.S. military.

After WWII, African-American activists demanded equal opportunity and called for improved military conditions. President Harry Truman supported these aspirations, emphasizing in 1947 that if the United States were going to fight for democracy and human rights abroad, then our country must set the strongest possible example for democracy and civil rights at home.

Like Lincoln, Truman used a war-era Executive Order to further the rights of African Americans. Executive Order 9981 declared that the Armed Services must maintain equal treatment and opportunity for those who serve in the country’s defense without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. Despite fierce resistance, the Air Force, formerly known as the Army Air Corps, began to integrate officially in November 1949. It took years for the Armed Forces to integrate fully.

Through their exemplary service to national defense, the Tuskegee Airmen and other African Americans in uniform advanced the greater cause of civil rights at home. Their example continues to inspire civil rights advancements today.

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