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Sundiata Cha-Jua, expert on African-American history
America’s first unit of African-American fighter pilots, the highly decorated Tuskegee Airmen, is the subject of the movie “Red Tails,” which opened last weekend. Part of the unit got early training at a base in East Central Illinois. Why is the story of these World War II pilots so important? And what do we need to know that isn’t in the movie? Sundiata Cha-Jua (SOON-dee-ah-tah Chah-JOO-ah) is a professor of history and of African American Studies who teaches courses in African-American history and the civil rights movement. He was interviewed about the airmen and the movie by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
In the context of World War II and the role played by most black servicemen, why does the story of the Tuskegee Airmen stand out?
The experience of the Tuskegee Airmen both confirms and departs from the overall experience of African-American soldiers during World War II. They were subjected to the same type of apartheid or segregation and racial oppression as almost all black soldiers. Chanute Field in Rantoul, Ill., was the only base that was desegregated, and that was because the small number of blacks trained there made apartheid too expensive.
Tuskegee Airmen, like other blacks, were barred from officers clubs, as well as all-white establishments off base. Initially, they too spent much of their time driving trucks, cutting lawns, and wielding shovels, paintbrushes and mops, rather than in combat situations. They too were generally referred to as “boy” and were subject to the prevailing belief that as blacks they were incompetent and incapable of fighting.
Whites could become pilots right out of high school, but blacks had to have a college degree. Any pilot became an ace when he got five “kills,” or downed planes. But according to one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Quinton Smith, in a recent news story, when an African-American downed four planes he was transferred back stateside.
Their experiences departed from that of the regular African-American soldier in that as pilots they were engaged in the thrill of combat and excelled at it. The four fighter squadrons that composed the black 332nd Fighter Group – the 99th, 100th, 301st and the 302nd – shot down 112 enemy planes and destroyed 150 on the ground, as well as 600 railroad cars. They also sank one destroyer, along with 40 boats and barges. The Tuskegee Airmen won six Distinguished Unit Citations. In 1949, they won the Air Force’s first Top Gun competition, though their victory was not acknowledged until April 1995. They embodied the African-American aphorism that “you have to be twice as good to get half as far.”
You call the war years and after of the 1940s a “watershed” in African-American history, though the dramatic events of the civil rights movement would come later, in the ’50s and ’60s. What factors or events made the ’40s so important?
The 1940s were a watershed because it was a time of tremendous change and progress. Significant change occurred in the demography, socioeconomic role, and legal and political status of blacks, as they battered the first meaningful cracks in American apartheid during that decade. Most importantly, by 1950 the Second Great Migration, from the South to other parts of the country, had shifted African-Americans from a majority rural population to one in which 62 percent resided in urban areas. With urbanization came industrial jobs, better educational opportunities and access to better social services.
The March on Washington Movement led by A. Phillip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue two executive orders. The first, 8802, required companies with defense contracts to practice fair employment, and the second, 9346, created the Fair Employment Practices Committee to monitor hiring in 1941. These executive orders opened defense industry jobs to blacks.
African-Americans adopted the militant strategy reflected in the Pittsburgh Courier’s campaign for the “Double V,” for victory abroad and victory at home against anti-black racial oppression. Black union membership grew from 150,000 to 1.25 million. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright ruled the all-white primary unconstitutional, immediately increasing the African-American electorate by 450,000. Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball in 1945, and President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregated the armed forces in 1948.
These advances laid the material and organizational base for the emergence of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The movie is all about the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war. But what role did they play in the years after?
They represented a leadership group. Just as they often openly challenged segregation and racial oppression on the base and in the surrounding communities where they were stationed, they “returned fighting.” Ellsworth Dansby, a Tuskegee Airman from Decatur, Ill., is representative of that. When he returned home, along with other war veterans he organized African-Americans to pay their power bills in pennies until the Illinois Power Co. hired black female office workers.
“Red Tails” is a combat movie that puts an emphasis on action and heroism over history. Executive Producer George Lucas has said one goal was to make “an inspirational for teenage boys.” Do you think there’s value in that? And what would you most want audiences to know that wasn’t part of the movie?
It’s interesting that the film is titled “Red Tails.” Others called the Tuskegee Airmen that name after they painted the tails of their planes red. But they referred to themselves as “the Lonely Eagles” in reference to their isolation as a result of segregation and discrimination.
In many ways, the film neglects the backstory and racial issues embedded in it. The flight program at Tuskegee was the product of a 10-year battle with the military to train black pilots. The civilian struggle provides needed sociohistorical context but is not incorporated. Nevertheless, by portraying African-American men as heroes in contrast to much of their contemporary image in mainstream television and film, “Red Tails” has merit.
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