This Black History Month, I'm looking close to home. My dad, James B. Williams, was a Tuskegee Airman. He's 94, and I'm dedicating this column to him.
I said he was a Tuskegee Airman. The truth is he is and always will be a Tuskegee Airman. I think for most of them, it was a defining period in their lives.
A quick refresher: The Tuskegee Airmen were in a program that trained African-American pilots during World War II. Previously, military officials asserted that African-Americans were not capable of being combat pilots. Pilots and grounds crewmen were trained at Tuskegee University and went on to achieve an impressive combat record in Europe.
My dad was an engineering officer and his part of the story unfolded at Freeman Field in Indiana. In April 1945, he and 100 other Tuskegee Airmen refused to sign a document establishing a whites-only officers club. Refusing a direct order in wartime could be considered treason and punishable by death. He told his commanding officer simply, "If I can't go into the officers club, then I shouldn't be an officer."
The group was spirited off to another military base and placed under house arrest. Some have written about seeing German prisoners of war walking around the base freely while they were detained. An African-American photographer took a picture of them being transferred with a camera hidden in a paper bag. It ran on the front page of the Pittsburgh Courier and other African-American newspapers and was the only way the African-American community knew what had happened.
Dad was just 26 years old when he took such a strong stand for his convictions.
In the end, most of them, including my dad, were released after a few days. But they had a letter of reprimand placed in their files, stating that they were a discredit to their country and their race. Fifty years later, at the 1995 convention of the Tuskegee Airmen, Air Force officials removed the letter from their files.
Growing up, I remember my father talking about the letter of reprimand. My brother and I didn't realize the seriousness of what he'd faced. We knew he didn't think the reprimand was legitimate. Still, it was in his file.
As he got older, he became active in the Tuskegee Airmen group. He didn't miss a convention. The 1995 movie "The Tuskegee Airmen," starring Laurence Fishburne, brought their story into the public eye. In 2007, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2009, they were invited to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
I accompanied my dad to the inauguration and sat with the Tuskegee Airmen who attended. It was bitterly cold that day, and they were all elderly, but no one complained. I suspect none of them ever expected they would live to see the inauguration of the first African-American commander in chief.
Something about the Tuskegee Airmen's story strongly resonates with people. Maybe it's the idea they were fighting fascism abroad and racism at home -- during World War II, it was called the Double V campaign for victories on both fronts. Whenever Dad wears one of his Tuskegee Airmen caps or his jacket (which he almost always does), people come up and ask to shake his hand, thanking him for his service. Most likely they don't know the story about what's been called the Freeman Field Mutiny. He loves the recognition, anyway.
The protest at Freeman Field has been credited by historians as contributing to the desegregation of the armed forces under President Harry Truman's Executive Order 9981, issued three years later, in 1948.
The men who were Tuskegee Airmen, the pilots and grounds crewmen, went on to be high achievers; many became doctors, lawyers, judges, government officials and community leaders. Many stayed active in the fight for civil rights.
My dad, who was a surgeon, attended the March on Washington and was the doctor for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was in Chicago, where we lived. Hearing a noise when he picked up the phone, Dad was sure our phone was tapped. He would call J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, a derogatory term. Dad was one of a group of black doctors who met with President John F. Kennedy to get his support for legislation requiring the desegregation of hospitals that received federal funds. Kennedy said to him, "If you don't stand up for your rights, no one will." He believes Kennedy was referring to his participation in the Freeman Field protest.
We can't forget the battles that were fought and won, as well as the courage and perseverance it took on the part of so many people on so many fronts to get where we are. We can't forget the battles we still must fight. Happy Black History Month, Dad.