© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved
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In the summer of 1917, the United States had just declared war on Germany. In order to mobilize its forces, the US instituted a draft. Many did not wait to be drafted and volunteered instead. Over two million African-American men registered for that draft. 367,000 were accepted.
In a form of reverse discrimination, especially in the South, WWI draft boards eagerly accepted African-Americans in order to fill their quotas. Many southern draft boards refused to offer exemptions to black men with families and farms while they routinely did so for whites.
While the Army was more progressive in its treatment of African-American soldiers, Jim Crow was alive and well. Segregation and discrimination were the rule. Black soldiers were often housed in tents instead of permanent barracks. They were issued old Civil War uniforms and rifles and were assigned non-combat roles mostly serving the needs of white troops.
In 1918, however, with a potential catastrophe at the front lines in France, African-American troops were sent into combat – under French command, since US forces refused them. The 92nd combat division, comprising all black soldiers, fought at the decisive battle of Argonne and was kept at the front lines for six months – far longer than for other troops.
Despite initial setbacks due to poor equipment and a lack of effective coordination with French tactics, the 92nd was instrumental in breaking German front lines. After suffering over 5,000 combat deaths and winning several battles, the 92nd was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre” medal for its courage and success.
Expecting to return home as heroes – like other American forces – the 92nd instead faced 26 white racial riots against them. Whites feared these African-American soldiers with guns – believing they would start a revolution. Many were forced to quickly leave the military, others were attacked, some were lynched and killed – ten of them while in uniform. They fought for their country but were then killed by their own countrymen.
Despite the distinguished record of African-American forces in World War One, the US War College issued the following statement in 1925, only 87 short years ago, “Black men are very low in the scale of human evolution; the cranial cavity of the Negro is smaller than the white and his brain weighs less. Blacks are mentally inferior to the white man, by nature subservient, cowardly, and therefore unfit for combat.” (forgive me for uttering such words)
This quote is cited in the opening frame to the movie “Red Tails”, a film depicting the historic efforts of an all black pilot squadron in World War Two. It served as the guide for military attitudes toward African-Americans for over twenty years. It highlights the culture of racism against which black airmen and soldiers had to fight.
The pseudo-science, racism and lies embodied in that War College report were decisively proven false by the exploits of black soldiers in World War Two. The courage demonstrated by the fighter pilots in the historically accurate movie “Red Tails” is ample evidence.
As much as that fact alone is inspirational to us, I found a more subtle message in the film to be an even greater lesson for me. It took courage to strap oneself into a cockpit protected by only a thin plastic canopy and fly off to fight other planes equipped with machine guns ready to rip one apart. More importantly, however, it took courage to daily face the kind of hatred and bigotry black officers and soldiers experienced. Such episodes are well depicted in the film. It took even more courage to press their case and insist they were every bit as brave, intelligent and capable as any other man or woman.
And that insistence to be allowed to fight is clearly shown in the film. The Tuskegee Fighter Squadron, named after the only pilot training school open to African-Americans – at Tuskegee, Alabama, faced prejudice at all levels, as high as the top generals in the Pentagon.
Just as happened in World War One, blacks in World War Two were routinely assigned roles as support personnel – those who cooked and cleaned for white troops. While over 2 million African-Americans served in WWII, only 50,000 served in combat. In a particularly humiliating role, black soldiers were assigned as guards over German prisoners. But, in the cafeterias, churches and other locations at the prison camps, black guards were not permitted to share the same benefits as their white prisoners. The irony of African-Americans not being given the same rights as racist, Nazi German prisoners is extreme.
And the Tuskegee airmen were treated no differently. Despite their training as fighter pilots, the squadron was issued old and slow airplanes. Their role was to provide defense in areas far behind the front lines. Blacks were deemed incapable of bravery.
Can we imagine, however, the courage it would take to not only be willing to face death but to also face the kind of discrimination which believes you to be inferior? The kind of bigotry that humiliates you and taunts you? The kind of demeaning attitudes which assign you to poor conditions and ineffective equipment? Such courage to publicly speak out and insist on one’s own rights – as well as for the rights of others – is of a greater courage in my mind. It is a moral courage to which we are called to follow in our own lives. And that courage by the Red Tail officers and airmen paved the way for future equal rights in our armed services – even providing the moral foundation for the recent permission of openly gay and lesbian soldiers to serve. The symbol which the Red Tails squadron used during the war was a double V insignia – two V’s for victory. One against Germany. The second against discrimination.
In the face of racism, the officers of the Red Tails squadron tirelessly fought for the opportunity of their men to prove their ability. In several situations which are depicted in the film, they are finally given that chance. Tuskegee fighter pilots were instrumental in the success of the Allied landing at Anzio beach in Italy – the first invasion of occupied Europe. They went on to provide crucial air protection to bombers on their way to Germany. On raids in which they provided defense, not a single bomber was ever lost. Commanders soon began requesting Red Tails coverage. Sixty-six Tuskegee pilots were killed in combat in World War Two – out of only a few hundred who had been trained and allowed to fly.
Just as we found in the last two movies we considered for this monthly series looking at current popular films, “Red Tails” offers us spiritual lessons we would be wise to learn. As a depiction of the fight for human equality, the film is another good one in that historic record. But it is the ethic of moral courage, implicit in the film, that resonates for us. While I cannot begin to identify with the pain and humiliation of racism, I can understand and learn from the basic human ethic of having moral courage - especially against majority opinions. Such courageous actions often put one in both physical danger as well as emotional and psychological danger.
Someone with moral courage confronts an immoral status quo. He or she protests against something which many others support. One acts in the face of widespread “groupthink” – majority attitudes of indifference to or even support of a moral wrong. Christians like Corrie Ten Boom who opposed Nazi discrimination against Jews is one example. Rosa Parks standing up against Jim Crow laws is another. Straight allies who speak out in support of gay men and women are another. It takes courage to stand alone, or in a very small minority, and cry out against immorality.
Recently, an Islamic cleric in Iran claimed that morality is a relative idea and that Islamic morality should not be judged. This was said in response to protest against Iran’s execution by stoning of a woman caught in adultery – while the man in question was simply jailed.
What this cleric advocated is a type of moral relativism which is indefensible. Not all so called morals are universal but there is, as we have discussed numerous times in here, one moral standard. While all religious and cultural beliefs should be respected and honored – freedom on conscience throughout the world is a basic human right – I assert there is one universal moral principle in our world – that of the golden rule or law or reciprocity. Contrary to the opinion of that Iranian official, the Koran even says one is to seek for mankind what one seeks for oneself. All world religions assert a version of this ethic. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Love others as you love yourself.
Any law, tradition or cultural practice which does harm to or hinders the basic human rights of another human – in a manner that would be unjust to any person – is a moral and spiritual wrong. In this sense, it takes moral courage to protest such immorality. Jesus defied prevailing religious legal attitudes that put ritual and doctrine ahead of compassion, decency and equal treatment. He was morally courageous in opposing religious elites and leaders of his time. The prophet Muhammad praised moral courage over violence. He said, “ A man who defends his family and lands does so out of duty, whereas a man of courage is one who does not renounce his life of virtue……in the face of violence.” As a Hindu, Gandhi courageously advocated non-violence even when his Indian countrymen insisted that physically fighting against oppression is the only way to succeed.
Indeed, while we praise the types of physical courage that it takes to put oneself in harms way – to fly a fighter plane, to serve on the front lines in any war, to charge into a burning skyscraper to rescue others – we often overlook or diminish moral courage. Mark Twain once said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
It took moral courage against injustice by the founding fathers to declare our nation’s independence. It took moral courage for Sojourner Truth, an African-American slave, to speak in favor of equal rights for blacks and women. It took moral courage for black soldiers in the Civil War, World War One, World War Two and the Korean war to assert their right to serve equally. It took moral courage for Rosa Parks to refuse to move to the back of the bus, for Martin Luther King, Jr. to take up her cause and be jailed as a result, for the Little Rock nine – African-American High School students – to walk past armed guardsmen and jeering white crowds to attend an all white school, for four young black men to sit at an all white lunch counter in Greensboro, South Carolina and refuse to move, for Patricia Banks to sue United Airlines insisting on equal opportunity to work as a flight attendant – the first African-American to so serve, and for Michael Gunn, just last summer, to file suit against – and refuse to ignore – an Ohio landlord who posted a sign reading “Public Swimming Pool – Whites Only” after his bi-racial daughter had swam in the apartment pool.
What acts of moral courage do we stand for in our lives? I am humbled in the presence of moral courage in this very room. It takes moral courage to fight and work for higher quality in a largely black school district, to advocate for animal rights, to speak out for prisoners and those condemned to die, to publicly identify, as a straight person, in solidarity with gays and lesbians, to counsel and treat sex offenders, to lead a life of quiet humility, good cheer and service to others while battling significant health challenges, to proclaim a female identity when you were born with a man’s body, to assert with pride that you are gay or lesbian, to battle, as a woman, against a patriarchal and sexist culture, to quietly work with homeless teens, underprivileged children and others on the margins of life.
Just recently, I was told of a member in this congregation who is being attacked for having spoken out against racism. This member was publicly identified and the person’s picture was even displayed in print and on the internet. When I first saw this, I felt sorry for our member. While I am still sympathetic and very supportive, I also now feel great pride that this morally courageous person attends the Gathering and that all of you, like this person, are willing to publicly identify yourselves as also morally courageous – those unafraid to stand for justice, equality and compassion.
A few weeks ago I received a piece of hate e-mail attacking me for being a “fag Pastor at a faggot loving church.” This person did not identify himself or herself but proceeded to cite the standard Bible passages about homosexuality and then told me that while I am already going to hell, it will be even worse for me because I am leading others to hell through my messages. At first, I was alarmed and fearful of the hate behind this note. As time has gone on, though, I refuse to give in to my fears. I will choose love over fear. I am proud to be known as a gay Pastor. I am proud to be a Pastor of an open, affirming, caring, diverse, and loving congregation. I am proud to be publically identified as such. In this small way, I too can stand with moral courage in the face of hate, bigotry and lies.
What we learn from “Red Tails” – that which we already know but need reminder – is to continue our stand for the dignity and rights of all men, women and created beings. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Equal to that ideal are the words of William Shakespeare, “Cowards die a thousand deaths……….the valiant taste death but once.”
Calvin Moret, one of the last surviving members of the Red Tails squadron, recently said, “I want people to remember that Tuskegee airmen were Americans. That they were serving this country as valiantly as any other service men who ever lived — or who died. There were 66 black American Tuskegee airmen who didn’t make it back here. They are heroes for all time.”
May each of us seek to be equal to their example. May we always strive to be morally courageous heroes in our time.
I wish you all much peace and even more joy…