Airmen Fought For Nation, But Also For Equality

A decade before the Civil Rights Movement gained significant steam, black airmen fought to desegregate an officer's club on an Air Force base in Indiana during World War II. Lt. Col.James C. Warren, who was there through it all, talked to weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about the experience.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

A decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, a decade before the US Supreme Court ended segregation in school, 104 African-American airmen laid the groundwork to desegregate the U.S. military.

LT. COL. JAMES C. WARREN: We were met by machine gun-armed military police and loaded aboard prison vans.

RAZ: Lieutenant Colonel James C. Warren was there when it all started on an airfield in Indiana during the Second World War. In honor of Veterans Day, we bring you the story of Colonel Warren and his fellow airmen who fought to integrate the U.S. military.

WARREN: We never wanted to be separated. We knew we could compete with any group.

RAZ: Separate but equal was the law of the land for almost 60 years.

Separate but equal? No way. It's not true.

It was at an officers' club on the Freeman Airfield in Indiana where black officers of the 477th Bombardment, including Lieutenant Colonel James Warren, challenged the idea of separate but equal. It was 1945, almost 10 years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided to strike down that law.

General O.D. Hunter, the commanding general of First Air Force, issued an order that barred us from going to a club that was set aside for the so-called instructor personnel.

And all of them were white. Colonel Warren and his fellow black officers, who had all made sacrifices for their country, decided that order should not stand. So they came up with a plan.

WARREN: I was in the first group to go on into the club that night. I went over to the bar, and I ordered a beer. The bartender, he said that, we're not supposed to serve colored in here. And I said, I didn't order a colored. I ordered a beer.

RAZ: Warren and his fellow officers refused to leave. So a short time later, they were arrested and removed. But other black officers continued to pile into the club all night long and into the next day. And in all, 61 officers were placed under arrest for disobeying orders and subsequently asked to sign a regulation that said they would stay out of the club.

Which in essence said we would agree to be discriminated against on this base while we were getting trained to go fight a war.

A hundred and four African-American airmen refused to sign that regulation. It was a violation of military law. So they were given official reprimands and remained arrested. But pressure from civil rights groups and members of Congress eventually led to those charges being dropped. And three years later, in 1948, President Truman desegregated the military. But it took almost 50 years for the Air Force to finally begin to remove those letters of reprimand from the airmen's permanent files.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And on this Veterans Day, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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