A class of newly commissioned pilots at Tuskegee Army Flying School in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1942. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Lessons in Excellence from the Tuskegee Airmen

During WWII, the first black military pilots proved the bigots wrong, doing their job better than any other unit in the U.S. Air Force.

Hanging in my judicial chambers at the National Courts Building in Washington, D.C., is a depiction of the Red Tails—P-51 fighter planes piloted by the Tuskegee Airmen—escorting American bombers back to their base during World War II. It’s admittedly an odd choice of artwork for me. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military pilots. I am not black, and though I grew up an Army brat, I did not serve in the military. Many guests to my chambers ask why I display the Red Tails illustration so prominently. 

My answer is simple. While our country treated the Tuskegee Airmen terribly—indeed, there are stories of the U.S. military treating Nazi POWs better than our own black soldiers—the Tuskegee Airmen didn’t seek special treatment or advancement. Instead, they were patriots who simply sought the opportunity to serve the country they loved just like everyone else. They wanted to show their fellow Americans that they were fully committed to the American cause. Equally important to their story is that when they got their chance to serve, they proved naysayers and white supremacists wrong. They did their job arguably better than anyone else, losing far fewer bombers than the average fighter group did. 

The Airmen rose above their unique challenges, literally and figuratively. According to the National WWII Museum, the Tuskegee “training program was criticized because so many of the cadets ‘washed out’ or failed to complete flight training and get their wings.” But placing a premium on excellence meant that “those who did graduate were grateful that the standards were high, and that they had fulfilled them.” And that also meant nobody could say the Tuskegee Airmen didn’t earn their place. And earn their place in history they did. The first three black generals in the Air Force were Tuskegee Airmen. Collectively, the Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Unit Citations, and a Congressional Gold Medal.

The artwork in my chambers is signed by four of the actual Tuskegee Airmen. My favorite signature, partly because I heard him speak in person two decades ago, belongs to Brigadier General Charles McGee. A real-life Captain America, General McGee completed his military service having flown 409 fighter combat missions—one of the highest totals of any Air Force pilot—spanning World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, including at least 100 such missions in each of those wars. He won just about every military honor there is before he died in 2022 at age 102. 

As my wife and I recently began watching Masters of the Air, the new TV series about American bomber crews in World War II, I have returned to reading about the Tuskegee Airmen. General McGee appears even more heroic than before, particularly for his magnanimity toward the nation he had to prove wrong even as he put his life on the line to protect it. As he recounts in one interview, “the focus was the mission and not on the segregation.” His lesson “for all the young folks” is “not listening to somebody tell you you can’t do something” because of something irrelevant like your skin color. When faced with prejudice and bigotry, the best way to show you belong is “to step forward and show that you can.” 

Brigadier General Charles McGee in Dulles, Virginia, six months before his death at age 102 on January 16, 2022. (Photo by Matt McClain via Getty Images)

General McGee’s teachings remind me of the basics I learned growing up, the universal ones we teach children but often forget as adults. He emphasized that we should “treat other people like you want to be treated” and that unlike sticks and stones, words hurt only as much as we let them. He preached that “if everybody lived by the [Boy] Scout laws, the 12 Scout laws, we’d have a different country for sure.” That goes for people of all races. He credited his achievements to a simple formula that he encouraged all young Americans to follow, which he called the “Four Ps: perceive, prepare, perform, persevere.” He also highlighted the importance of selflessness and sacrifice: “Dream your dreams, but get the good education to accomplish the desires and needs of the country.” But my favorite McGee aphorism of all is “Always seek excellence and always do your best in things that you do. . . .  Don’t let the negative circumstances be an excuse for not achieving.”

The World War II Museum sums up the story of the Tuskegee Airmen well. It “is not just about what white men did to black men, but also about what white and black men did for each other, and what white and black men did together against a common enemy.” At a time when racial tensions sadly remain unresolved or even percolate, the Airmen’s hard work and achievements help remind us all that trendy solutions—eliminating objective standards of excellence to advance “equity” while eroding Americans’ shared sense of national purpose by fixating on race—are dead wrong. More importantly, society will derive no benefit from focusing people on the unfairness of life’s obstacles even when they in fact germinate from a seed of injustice. To the contrary, the Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated that the sky is the limit in this country—and that goes for each American as an individual and for our nation as a whole. Old-fashioned values aren’t a cliché; as General McGee reminded us, they’re the keys to success.

Matthew H. Solomson is a judge serving on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. For more on black history, read Free Press reporter Francesca Block’s profile of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter Clarence Jones, “We Are Trying to Save the Soul of America.”

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