Reach And Teach, leading off a teach-in with a trailer for a war movie? Yes. On January 20th 2012, George Lucas' film, Red Tails, will appear in movie theaters across the country. It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots and crews who bravely and succesfully protected white bomber crews during WWII, flying side by side, white and black, to defend America, only to return to bases and a country where whites and blacks weren't allowed to sit side by side and share a cup of coffee.
The Tuskegee curriculum is still free! Click here to download the PDF.
The United States Air Force created the following brief documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen.
In 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In researching this teach-in, we found the text of the 109th Congress Public Law 213, awarding the medal to the Tuskegee Airmen. The text includes historical facts about the Tuskegee Airmen. President Roosevelt had ordered his generals to start training black pilots after the NAACP had filed a suit in Federal court on behalf of a group of men including Yancee Williams, a black Howard University student who had already earned a civilian pilot's license. The generals balked at first, but eventually grudgingly followed orders. Public Law 213 records: From all accounts, the training of the Tuskegee Airmen was an experiment established to prove that so-called "coloreds" were incapable of operating expensive and complex combat aircraft. Studies commissioned by the Army War College between 1924 and 1939 concluded that Blacks were unfit for leadership roles and incapable of aviation. Instead, the Tuskegee Airmen excelled.
Back in 2003, Reach And Teach created a curriculum for a class project that you can use to teach about the Tuskegee Airmen, culminating in a special Tuskegeee Airmen Day.
After learning about these amazing heroes, who despite saving the lives of countless white air crews still faced discrimination on the ground, your students will be get a chance to express their feelings about the stories through writing, poetry and rap, art, protest signs, and skits.
Creating the curriculum was prompted by a story that appeared in 2003 about a Tuskegee Airman who had criticized the U.S. launch of a war against Iraq. Reach And Teach co-founder Craig Wiesner wrote the following, which is included in the curriculum.
During my first shivering days in Basic Training in 1979, on those cold Lackland Air Force Base Texas mornings, it was quite evident that the differences between the Black, Hispanic, Native-American, Asian, and Caucasian airmen standing on the tarmac would be in our acts, not our ethnicity. Our hair shaved, our clothes identical, our first names changed from those our parents had given us to a uniform “airman,” the only differentiating identity left was our color. Even that was to be ignored as we all adopted our new hue, the Air Force blue. No, color would not matter here, only deeds. The most respected of deeds were those that led to the success of our squadron, not the individual. Such was the lesson the Air Force learned from the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII.
Trained at Tuskegee Air Field, these African-American airmen flew fighter escort missions. As white crews flew planes loaded with bombs destined for enemy targets, the Tuskegee airmen flew in front, on the side, and at the rear of each bomber to protect it from enemy planes trying to shoot it down before it reached enemy targets.
The Tuskegee airmen fought two enemies, those against whom we were waging war, and their own American compatriots, whose prejudice and discrimination provided a daily reminder that the land of the free and the home of the brave were still a land and home bitterly divided. Still, these brave black pilots were so ferocious in protecting white-only bomber crews that enemy planes seeing the Tuskegee escorts would run for cover, giving the United States a clear path to enemy targets on the ground. Not a single white crewman died while the Tuskegees protected them. Hundreds of decorations are testimony to Tuskegee bravery.
In August of 2003, one of those brave Tuskegee pilots spoke out against the Iraq war. According to newspaper columnist Ruth Rosen, Jimmie Atchison has a daughter flying intelligence missions over Iraq. Jimmie says it is an "oil-oriented war" led by a "warmongering" president. He also believes "the government has shortchanged the military troops" by sending too few soldiers for an occupation. "As a result," he says, "some of the soldiers don't trust what their leaders tell them, especially what the war is about or when they're going to go home."
Reading Jimmie’s words, memories of my own Air Force days came flooding back. Duty, honor, and country were the words we chanted as we marched from place to place, with stories of the many heroes from the Air Force’s past shared with us each day. The Tuskegee Airmen were such heroes but in their time, heroism wasn’t enough.
One afternoon when a group of Tuskegees returned from a dangerous mission through enemy skies, they decided to celebrate in the Officer’s Club. Despite the hundreds of white pilot’s lives these men protected in the air, their presence would not be tolerated by white officers on the ground. The Tuskegee airmen walked into the Officer’s Club in violation of the white-only segregation rule, and were arrested. One eventually received a court martial. The incident, in the end, led to the dismantling of white only military facilities. Jimmie and his fellow pilots had helped the United States not only win WWII, but their contribution to that war effort hastened the end of segregation throughout America.
Jimmie defended America again when North Koreans swarmed across the 38th parallel. Why was Jimmie ready to fight for his country 50 years ago, but so critical of the war against Iraq now in 2003?
As a fellow veteran, I know it takes a real crisis of faith to criticize our government’s policies, especially when our loved ones are risking their lives on foreign soil. As President U.S. Grant said about the war against Mexico, it would be “better to advocate war, pestilence, and famine than to act as an obstructionist to a war that has already begun. The most favorable posthumous history the stay-at-home traitor can hope for is oblivion.”
Such public criticism against an ongoing war requires certainty and bravery, much the same as it did for those black pilots to demand access to the white-only Officers Club. Recently a new organization called Military Families Speak Out formed with a mission to bring our troops home from Iraq. Fearing quagmire like we faced in Viet Nam and a mounting death toll already exceeding the number of casualties during the main campaign to remove the Iraqi regime, these families want their loved ones brought home as quickly as possible. The key message they strive to make clear is that they support our troops 100% but don’t support the continuation of this war. At a recent Veterans for Peace conference I attended, one protest sign summed up the way many people feel “The President says ‘bring em on’ and I say ‘Bring Them HOME!” There are those who say that such sentiments and public criticism are unpatriotic, even treasonous. I disagree. The freedom to voice dissent in the face of injustice, whether it means walking into a whites-only Officer’s Club or standing outside the White House with a protest sign, is what makes America great. I believe that it is time to bring our troops home from Iraq, allowing a UN peacekeeping force to help get the new Iraqi government started.
When we do bring our troops home, now or later, we must remember that regardless of our opinion of any war, our troops deserve respect and honor for the sacrifices they make on our behalf. After Viet Nam, some Americans treated returning troops very badly, and that legacy of mistreatment is clearly remembered any time war protesters march in our streets today. Memories of protesters spitting on American soldiers and calling them baby-killers are hard to erase.
Despite differing opinions on this war against Iraq, it is good to remember that when our troops do come home this time, there won’t be any doors or water fountains marked “Whites Only,” reminding us all that the enduring values of freedom and equality are what make America worth defending, even if it means standing on a chilly tarmac at 5:00 in the morning, chanting “Duty, Honor and Country,” or trudging through 120 degree heat in the desert, with an enemy that doesn’t care what color you are, but knows you represent the red, white and blue. 24 years after my first shivering and shaking day in the Air Force, I find myself once again standing side by side with someone a different color than me, and remembering that it is our duty to protect the honor of our country and speak out for the good of the nation, no matter what the cost to the individual. You go Jimmie! (And thanks Ruth Rosen!)
About the Painting/Poster
Above is a painting by Edward Clay Wright Jr., used with the permission of the Black Heritage Gallery. Edward Clay Wright began his career as an illustrator and graphic artist in the Denver, Colorado area. He has become recognized as a leading African-American artist in the Northwest. His work has been shown in a variety of galleries as well as commissioned by the city of Denver for numerous specialty designs. One of his many creations is an exclusive line called "The Heritage Series" which depicts African-American historical greats. Clay works primarily in airbrush, oils and acrylics. The poster is available for purchase at www.blackheritagegallery.com
About the author:
Craig Wiesner is a United States Air Force veteran, who served as a Korean linguist and military foreign language instructor at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Craig was the John L. Levitow Honor Graduate from the United States Air Force NCO Academy Leadership School in 1985. Craig is on the steering committee for Multifaith Voices for Peace And Justice, one of the founders of MicahsCall.org, is a member of Veterans for Peace and works with a variety of organizations promoting peace and social justice causes. He can frequently be heard on KQED, the San Francisco National Public Radio affiliate, where he is a contributor to the daily Perspective series. Craig is the co-founder of Reach and Teach which transforms the world through teachable moments with learning products focused on Peacemaking, Gender Equality, and Sustainable Living.