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How black US airmen finally slipped their surly bonds

Posted: February 8, 2012 - 1:01am

Something unusual happened at the premiere of the film “Red Tails.” People applauded during the movie and when it ended. They also cheered, laughed and cried during the film.

The movie that George Lucas produced about the Tuskegee Airmen has had that effect on audiences. “Red Tails” is particularly pertinent during Black History Month.

It is an all-American story about an underdog group of black fighter pilots and mechanics overcoming the crushing adversity of racism, segregation and discrimination during World War II to fly their way into the history books as heroes. In a speech before the film, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said that until the Tuskegee Airmen got a chance to prove themselves, the nation’s message to African-Americans was “you are not even qualified to die for your country.”

History plays a lead role in the film. African-Americans were drawn into the excitement of aviation as much as anyone. It was a relatively new, incredibly fast means of travel, and young black men were captivated by it.

Government programs starting in 1938 gave many African-American college students the opportunity to earn their private pilot’s license. The draft in 1940 swept all American males ages 21 to 35 in to register.

But the country’s history of segregation intruded, forcing black men into separate units. Also in 1940, the War Department directed the civil Aeronautics Authority in cooperation with the U.S. Army to develop “colored personnel” for the aviation service. It was deemed an “experiment” like a lot of things that African-Americans have had to endure.

Yet eager black men who wanted to serve their country came mostly from big cities to the Tuskegee Institute, which had been chosen to train pilots, navigators, bombardiers, mechanics and others.

Still the country’s long history of racism saddled the black aviators with the worst aircraft and equipment. The men in the 332nd Fighter Group based at the Ramitelli airfield in Italy in 1944 initially got lesser flying patrols away from combat.

Lucas, who did the “Star Wars” films, spent 23 years trying to get the Tuskegee Airmen’s story into the theater. Movie executives didn’t think a picture about black men would be a good box office draw. They were wrong.

The peculiar history of slavery and people’s prejudices lingering against blacks hurt the Tuskegee Airmen and getting their story on to film. Lucas funded the project with $58 million of his money to show that the black fighter pilots went against long-held and untrue negative images of African-Americans lacking courage, intelligence and patriotism.

The Tuskegee Airmen as well as black soldiers in tanks, on ships and in the infantry fought, seeking what black newspapers at the time called the “Double V” — victory against Adolf Hitler overseas and victory against Jim Crow and racism at home.

“It is important that all of the people of this nation know about and appreciate all of its history,” Cleaver said.

The heroics and young men overcoming insurmountable odds were central parts of “Red Tails.” It’s also not a mystery that the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen has a Star Wars-like feel except it’s set in the 1940s. The characters exhibit a lot of the same bravado of the heroes in Lucas’ earlier movies. They’re also far from perfect.

Like Lucas’ other films, there is even a romantic element in “Red Tails,” which made the audience swoon and tear up.

The film’s overall effect is that it depicted African-Americans accurately as caring about their country and each other. Young people were living up to the high expectations of their parents and ancestors, dating back to slaves in America.

Beyond the war, the young men had dreams of going back to college and getting advanced degrees. They had hopes of entering professional careers — many of which had been closed to black people because of discrimination.

They also were determined to fight the odds, fight Jim Crow at home and win. Their heroism during the war combined with others’ fueled the civil rights movement and helped make America what it is today.

Without their contributions, the many African-Americans who filled the seats in the theater wouldn’t have been there, and this story would never have been told.

• Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board.

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