Red Tails, the new George Lucas film depicting the valiant Tuskegee Airmen, reminds us of the often overlooked role of African Americans in World War II and their noble achievements. While much has been written about the airmen, very few of us understand how important three women were to their existence. And this is one crucial historical element that Lucas left out.
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Since the Civil War, the United States had maintained a Jim Crow Army. While the Navy never deviated from integration, the Army (the Air Force did not become a separate service until after the war) rigidly segregated African Americans into separate units. While Africans Americans might be effective soldiers, the Army War College in 1925 maintained that "in the process of evolution, the American Negro has not progressed as far as the other subspecies of the human family." (Red Tails opens with a quote from this report.) Blacks, it held, were neither smart enough nor physically strong enough nor brave enough to endure the demands of combat, let alone flight.
Although African Americans had valiantly served in the Civil War, on the frontier in the Indian Wars, in the Spanish American War and in World War I, white politicians and military officers still publicly professed to doubt black ability and patriotism, as part of the ideology and propaganda that undergirded Jim Crow in all of its pernicious forms. The crucial change came in 1938, primarily because of the efforts of an African-American woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, who saw, before most other black leaders, a way to break the hold of racism on black participation in the military, by striking at the most resistant obstacle of all: the integration of the pilot program.
Source: The Root | Henry Louis Gates Jr.