Throughout his time with the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, Roscoe Brown knew he had to be excellent and better than everyone else.
He watched as the black airmen suffered slights and insults while serving as World War II pilots and crew members. They were ordered to fly in battered hand-me-down planes, kept from participating in missions that brought glory and promotions to white pilots, and were barred from officers' clubs despite their officers' rankings.
On Friday evening, far from being barred from officers' clubs, several surviving black aviators were hosted by the White House for a screening of a film honoring their heroics.
"We knew we had to be better, we knew we had to be excellent," said Brown, 89, one of about 10 Tuskegee Airmen who attended the White House screening of "Red Tails," a film about the airmen produced by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas slated to open Friday.
Fighting prejudice, too
Historians say that many of these pioneering black aviators pushed back against the racial barriers placed in their way, first while serving in the Army in the 1940s, and later during the era of civil rights activism that flowered under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday will be celebrated Monday.
"Red Tails" depicts the actions of the 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit composed of aviators trained at Tuskegee, Ala. The black aviator group, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, was created to conform with segregationist policies that prevailed in the U.S. military until 1948.
Confounding military expectations that the unit would be a failure, the Tuskegee Airmen flew hundreds of missions over Europe, shot down 112 enemy planes, and won three Distinguished Unit Citation awards along with hundreds of individual combat medals.
Having spilled their blood to preserve America from Nazi and Japanese domination abroad, many of the Tuskegee Airmen were determined not to return to Jim Crow injustices at home, according to Daniel Haulman and Joseph Caver, co-authors of "The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History."
"There is more Tuskegee Airmen involvement in the civil rights movement than people realize," Haulman said.
Strife in the early days
The idea of a group of elite black aviators began to take shape out of early civil rights stirrings in America's black community. As World War II broke out, black college students who had completed pilot training at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were being barred from aviation units because of the military's segregation policies. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persuaded the White House to intervene, and the Army opened a blacks-only pilot training program in 1941.
One of the early racial incidents in the budding civil rights movement involved Tuskegee pilots at Freeman Army Airfield near Seymour, Ind., in 1945. Barred from a whites-only officers' club, scores of black officers risked their military careers by submitting to arrest, including Spann Watson, a Westbury resident who died in 2010.
Dabney Montgomery, 88, who served with a quartermasters unit attached to the Tuskegee Airmen in Europe, was barred from registering to vote when he returned to his Selma, Ala., hometown in 1945.
"The Tuskegee Airmen had a slogan: double 'v,' victory against tyranny overseas, victory against racism at home," said Montgomery, who was a bodyguard to King during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery protest marches. "It gave me the courage to try to change the law."
In 1952, Brown, then an education professor at New York University, worked on a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore that eventually persuaded the Supreme Court to expand its 1954 desegregation ruling beyond public schools.
"My civil rights activity began before the King era," said Brown, who is director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "When King came along, and was such a persuasive speaker and was able to focus attention and attract television coverage, we were glad he could provide the leadership. But many of us were involved before King came along."
For Brown, who appears to be the last remaining Long Island Tuskegee combat pilot, the invitation to the White House of President Barack Obama is a wonderful validation of the airmen's contribution to American history and a soothing balm to racial hurts.
"It's a highlight to be invited to the White House by any president," said Brown, who maintains homes in Riverdale and Sag Harbor. "And it is particularly important to be invited by Obama, who has spoken about the Tuskegee Airmen as trailblazers."