I think it’s so fitting that we pay tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen on Dr. King’s birthday.
Before Dr. King dared to share his dream of a day when black people and white people were considered equal in this country, a group of black men and women had the audacity to dream – and believe – that they could fly. They didn’t stop with the dream, though. They put the work in and saw it through. From their tenacity, a rural air strip and a flight training program grew into historic Moton Field and an elite all-black squadron known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The history, mystique and contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen has been documented in many forms, museums, books, cable TV movies and now through the new feature film, “Red Tails.”
But my knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen came to me the old fashioned way – from my mama and daddy, Frances and Hercules Joyner. You see, I am the son of the Tuskegee Airmen program. My father and mother came to Tuskegee to be a part of history. My daddy was a cadet and my mom a secretary for one of the white commanders. My daddy had a car. My mama was part of his
carpool to Moten Field.
Like Robin Roberts and Fredricka Whitfield, whose daddies made it all the way through the program, there was undying sense of pride knowing that we were part of such a rich legacy. Growing up in Tuskegee, you were surrounded by black history and success stories like the role the Tuskegee Airmen played in World War II. It made a kid like me – and so many others – believe that there was absolutely nothing that we couldn’t accomplish through hard work.
Believe me, neither me, nor Lionel Richie, or many of the kids in my group distinguished ourselves as great students. What we did have was great role models and a can-do attitude that seemed to be everywhere. There’s something about seeing people who looked like you taking care of business, working as teachers and doctors, mechanics, scientists and college presidents. That builds your self-esteem. It’s a combination of pride, confidence and a desire to succeed.
We didn’t know it back then, but Tuskegee had swagger. I wish every child had the chance to live in a community that celebrated achieving the way Tuskegee did.
It wasn’t until I graduated from Tuskegee and moved away that I realized what a unique experience I’d had – that not everyone had a family doctor who was black, who would whip you for not delivering his newspaper. That not everyone could go the barber shop and listen to fighter pilots tell stories – and yeah, a lie or two. That not everyone grew up with a historically black college as the center of their town that hosted world famous artists, singers, athletes and dignitaries, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There is a common thread among historic figures like Dr. King and those who were part of the Tuskegee Airmen legacy. They had a dream. They had a plan. They had support. And it was not about them. It was always about their mission to serve. Dr. King and the Tuskegee Airman didn’t set out to achieve glory and recognition. They didn’t work to become famous. They were famous for their works.
The Tuskegee Airmen program, like the civil rights movement, wasn’t a success because of any one person. When Tuskegee received a contract from the military to provide flight training, the college selected African-American contractors to design and build the facility, while skilled workers and students helped to complete the field. The program itself consisted of pilots, mechanics, bombardiers, parachute riggers, nurses, air traffic controllers, navigators, administrative personnel and dozens of other supporting jobs. We could honestly say, in the words of the late, great Heavy D. that “we got our own thang.” And look how it’s still being celebrated, after all those years.
When I had the pleasure of talking to George Lucas about what it took to convince Hollywood that the story told in “Red Tails” would appeal to a mass audience, it was reminder of how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go.
I’m excited and looking forward to seeing the cinematic tribute to the 332nd Fighter Group of World War II in “Red Tails.” If you’re in the Atlanta area on Friday, please join us at the “Red Tails” Sky Show at the Rialto Center for the Arts. Along with some of the cast of the movie, there will be performances by Estelle, SWV and Ashanti.
We want this movie to be big success, and it will take all of us to make it happen. If you plan to attend – and especially if you’re taking a group from your church, sorority or frat, youth organization, etc. – let me know, and encourage others to do the same. We want to see the numbers at the box office soar as high as the historic fighter pilots we’re honoring.