Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tuskegee Airman Marches in Inauguration Parade

By Gabe Pressman
updated 4:45 p.m. MT, Wed., Jan. 14, 2009

Roscoe Brown will march with pride in the Inauguration Day Parade in Washington. For 86 years this New Yorker has fought battle after battle against what he calls “the stupidity of racism.” This will be the ultimate day in a lifetime of helping to break down barriers. Brown and about 330 of his fellow pilots and ground crew members who still live have been invited to attend the inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama.Brown, a professor and former president of Hostos College, will be wearing the black cap of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American men who fought for America in World War II. They were trained to fly at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. They had to confront the Jim Crow practices of the south even as they were educated to fly fighter planes in combat at a segregated institution.It was a little more than six decades ago -- yet what a sad world it was for a young black man! Restaurants were segregated and, after they received commissions as second lieutenants, these trail blazers were denied admission to officers' clubs on various bases. They experienced bigotry frequently. They had to disprove the vicious bias of white officers who insulted them and said they would never fight like white men. But the young black airmen persisted. By the end of World War II 994 pilots and about 15,000 ground personnel had been trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field.On the March 15, 1945, Roscoe Brown was part of the longest mission flown by the air force in World War II. He flew 1,500 miles from southern Italy to Berlin to take on a group of German jets. He shot down one of the German planes and he has a vivid memory of buzzing his home base as he and other pilots celebrated their triumph when they returned.“I was a kid, 23 years old,” Brown remembers. “And we were, like all pilots, a fun-loving, happy go lucky group.”As he marches down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, he'll be remembering that and many other moments in his life. This past Election Night, he celebrated the outcome with Congressman Charles Rangel, who was decorated for his bravery in the Korean War. Blondell's Restaurant in Harlem was crowded with people hailing the outcome of the election. At about 11 p.m., when Sen. Obama was declared president-elect, Brown recalls, “we shouted: 'We did it!'”And indeed they did. “I was so thrilled. Obama has shown such competence.”Does he think the new president's deeds will be as impressive as his words? “Politics,” said Brown, “is the art of the possible. I think Obama will make a good run at it.”The Tuskegee Airmen, an elite corps that contributed to America's victory in World War II, still faced discrimination when they returned home. Finally, six decades later, their achievements were recognized when they received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give. And their performance helped move President Harry Truman to desegregate the armed services in 1948.“My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed, ” Obama said.Roscoe Brown is a patient man. He looks forward to more barriers being torn down, including economic inequality. He doesn't rail against the racists who said black men would never be good soldiers. To him racists are just stupid. And he adds: “I'm just proud of being part of history.”

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