With the release of “Red Tails,” the nation’s attention has focused once again on the courageous African American pilots of World War II who battled German aces while enduring countless racial indignities in the U.S. military. But as the Tuskegee Airmen have finally begun to receive long-overdue recognition and honor, it is equally important for us to remember a freedom fighter who vigorously opposed the initial plan to train black pilots under segregated conditions.
Thurgood Marshall, the top NAACP attorney during the Great War, was incensed when he first learned about the possibility of a segregated air squadron to be trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and in January 1941 he asked his good friend William Hastie — an esteemed black attorney serving as the civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry Stimson — to help kill the plan.
Hastie was sympathetic but powerless, and the War Department sped ahead in spite of Marshall’s protests. That was no surprise. Although Stimson and top generals had publicly stated that black soldiers were inferior to whites in their ability to handle the modern weapons of war, they were also pragmatists who needed more pilots in the fight for democracy abroad.
Marshall and the NAACP continued their own fight by releasing a press statement characterizing the Tuskegee plan as a blatant example of the “undemocratic and un-American practice of segregation of the Negro.” Marshall also dared to suggest that black pilots trained under segregated conditions would never be adequately trained for battle.
It was a hard sell. The chance to see young African American men climb out of trenches and into cockpits was a dream come true for those who had witnessed the brutal and dehumanizing treatment of black soldiers in World War I.
Leading African Americans were also far from supportive. Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood’s mentor and former boss at the NAACP, had long thought that “asking for integration in the Army without segregation” would accomplish “little more than pointing out the ideal.” Far more effective, he said, would be to ensure the incorporation of black soldiers “into all branches of the armed forces, whether we have to accept segregated units or not.” Houston’s advice: Deal with reality, Thurgood.
But Marshall — who had lobbied Secretary Stimson to admit blacks into an integrated Army Air Corps as early as August 1940 — could not even stomach the thought of supporting a segregated training facility, especially one based at Tuskegee, whose founder, Booker T. Washington, had once suggested that blacks could best pursue their rights not by seeking redress through the courts but by working hard, becoming educated, and strengthening personal character within the system of segregation.
Marshall ridiculed the argument that separate could be equal, and he also claimed that those who accommodated to segregation — as the Tuskegee Institute did when it contracted with the U.S. Army Air Corps to help train black pilots in its segregated setting — simply perpetuated a system that routinely denied equal justice under law to any and all African Americans.
Marshall lost the Tuskegee battle, of course, but he did not stop fighting the war for racial justice. He avoided the draft with all his might, but the NAACP attorney tirelessly protested the murders of black soldiers in the South, defended blacks unjustly court-martialed, called for the integration of the blood supply for wounded soldiers, demanded the integration of convalescent hospitals run by the Army Air Corps, and continued to lobby for the desegregation of the entire U.S. military.
There is no movie about Marshall’s purist resistance; nor is he mentioned anywhere in “Red Tails.” That’s a shame, especially given the overwhelming evidence that Marshall’s principled refusal to accommodate to segregation — as witnessed in his successful legal campaigns against discrimination in housing, education, and the voting booth — has done more to pilot this country toward racial justice than any accommodating tactics ever have.
Michael G. Long teaches at Elizabethtown College and is the editor of Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall (Amistad/Harper Collins)