J. Todd Moye’s Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II was a lock to jump atop my reading stack. Dr. Moye’s a friend of mine and an occasional contributor to BGB. It is safe to assume that this will be one of the least objective reviews that we ever post here. Should you doubt my sincerity when I tell you that it’s an excellent book that you should check out? No way! This is just one of those “full disclosure” things that I feel you should be aware of as you read my praise for Freedom Flyers. But don’t book just take my word for it. The book is out on Oxford University Press, which is about as big deal an academic press as there is.
The basic story of the Tuskegee Airmen is well known. World War II was, in many ways, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The Tuskegee Airmen were notable because they were among the very first African-American officers in the U.S. Army (there was exactly 1 black officer prior to World War II). They were also among the first black men entrusted with more than just menial labor jobs in what was an institutionally segregated fighting force. Given an opportunity to prove their worth in what was disparagingly called “an experiment,” they found themselves fighting “Adolf Hitler and Jim Crow simultaneously.” For these reasons and many others, the Tuskegee Airmen have become a justly celebrated pillar of the Civil Rights Movement.
However, Moye’s book is not the usual hagiography of the Tuskegee Airmen that gets dusted off each February for Black History Month. It’s the story of real, imperfect men, who found themselves in an unprecedented position at a pivotal point in world history. Often lionized as civil rights warriors, they were more often than not simply trying to work their way into a better job with prospects for a better future. Moye also points to recent scholarship that shows that the popular myth that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a plane under their escort is almost certainly untrue. The real history of these men is so intriguing that embellishments of their story are hardly necessary.
What separates this book from other histories of the famed airmen (and the movie starring Laurence Fishburne) is the thoroughness and depth of Moye’s account. Dr. Moye was the director of the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project, a National Park Service project that set out to collect oral histories from all of the surviving airmen. This incredible access to the men behind the myth provides a layer of humanity and realism that is often missing from other historical accounts.
A few years ago, I went to see a talk that Dr. Moye gave on his Tuskegee Airmen scholarship. A few of the Airmen were present in the auditorium and answered questions from the audience. Someone asked one of the pilots what part of their legacy was he most proud of. He paused for a moment and answered the question with a story about seeing a black female pilot landing a military plane in the background of a news story recently. The Airman said that he was most proud that the news story was about something else entirely – that a black woman piloting an Air Force plane was no longer a newsworthy event. It was an incredibly heartfelt and moving moment.
The mark of a well written history is that it casts current events in a new light. The reasons that the Army put forward for not integrating the service before and during World War II – “the Army is not a social laboratory,” “there are questions of morale,” “it’s not the right time to make these changes” – are the very same reasons that were trotted out to deny women equal opportunities in the armed forces and they are the same arguments used to deny gay soldiers from serving openly. History not only repeats itself, it blatantly plagiarizes itself. Fortunately, the lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen make it clear that a ghetto-ized military doesn’t work. The way to a diverse and equal-for-all military is to have a policies in place that are serious about effecting change and making promotion incumbent upon implementing and respecting the letter and the spirit of those policies.
Freedom Flyers captures a moment in our history that is important for what it tells us about ourselves and our past, as well as the insight it provides to our future. Do check out Freedom Flyers, and if you want to pick up a few extra copies for your friends and family members, I’m sure that my pal Dr Moye,won’t mind.