When black officers were refused service at the officers club at Freeman Army Airfield, Indiana, in 1945, fellow officers asked others if they'd be willing to jeopardize their military careers by protesting.
It was a tough choice for all of the men who were asked, including flight officer Clayton F. Lawrence, who was 90 when he died of cardiac arrest Sept. 8 at Jamaica Hospital.
In an era of racial segregation, the 21-year-old Lawrence had already overcome long odds to join the pioneering group of black aviators that would eventually be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. But he couldn't turn away, becoming one of scores of protesting black officers who were arrested.
"What they were doing at Freeman Field was definitely illegal," Lawrence told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2012. "And we planned to challenge it."
Historians say the protest hastened the end of segregation in the U.S. military. After the incident, the Army began placing black officers in what had been the all-white leadership of the "Negro" 477th Bombardment Group. Three years later, President Harry S. Truman banned segregation in the armed forces.
Audley Coulthurst, 90, of Jamaica, Queens, who witnessed the Freeman Field protest as a 20-year-old sergeant, said black officers bravely decided they no longer would be treated with contempt.
Coulthurst attended a funeral service for Lawrence Thursday at Springfield Gardens United Methodist Church in Queens.
Lawrence rarely spoke about the protest after returning to civilian life and earning an economics degree from Brooklyn College. His eldest daughter, Virginia Hardy, said he finally told her about it in 1990, when she was struggling with her doctoral coursework at Harvard.
"I think the pain of the discrimination they faced was something they had to lock away if they were to move forward, raise a family and be successful in their careers," said Hardy, of Brooklyn, a retired deputy New York City school superintendent.
Married to Mathilda Salisbury in 1949, Lawrence returned to active duty during the Korean War as a navigator/bombardier and eventually retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1983 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, the family said.
He spent most of his civilian career as a city property tax assessor, retiring in 1983.
Survivors include another daughter, Christina Lawrence, of Springfield Gardens, and a son, Terrence Lawrence, of Manhattan. His eldest son, Clayton Lawrence II, died in 1997. His wife died in 1979.
He will be buried Friday at Calverton National Cemetery.