The Tuskegee Airmen are best known for proving during World War II that Black men could be elite fighter pilots. Less widely known is the instrumental role these pilots, navigators and bombardiers played during the war in fighting segregation through nonviolent direct action. Their tactics would become a cornerstone of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s most influential moment of collective civil disobedience came in the spring of 1945, in what became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny. After enduring years of inadequate training facilities, discriminatory policies and hostile commanders in the Army Air Force, 101 officers of the all-Black 477th Bombardment Group—who had initially trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama—were arrested at Indiana’s Freeman Field base when they refused to sign a base regulation requiring separate officers’ clubs for Black and white soldiers. The order came after 61 Black officers were arrested trying to enter the white officers’ club.
They weren’t alone. After the War Department ordered military bases to integrate all recreational facilities in 1944, Black officers across the country were eager to test the new policy. Most cases—including an earlier incident with the 447th—involved Black servicemen “entering post exchanges and asking to be served, or entering the theater and seating themselves in the white section,” said Alan M. Osur, a former history professor at the Air Force Academy and the author of Blacks in the Army Air Forces During World War II: The Problems of Race Relations. Nothing had yet occurred on the scale of the Freeman Field Mutiny.
Separate, but Not Equal, Facilities
Their actions sprang out of a long-simmering debate over the unequal treatment of Black and white officers and the integration of officers’ clubs. “The country is not ready to accept white officers and colored officers at the same social level,” said Major General Frank Hunter, the commanding general of the 477th Bombardment Group. “I base that opinion on the history of this country for the past 125 years.”
At Freeman Field, Hunter’s subordinate, Colonel Robert Selway, established two allegedly equal officers’ clubs—one for the white officers, who were designated as instructors and the other for Black officers, who were classified as trainees. But the two clubs were anything but equal. The white officers’ club had a large fireplace and game room with pool tables, table tennis and card tables, while its Black counterpart was heated by coal stoves and contained none of the aforementioned amenities. The Black officers nicknamed their officers’ club “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and refused to patronize it, according to Todd Moye, the author of Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and the director of the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. “Selway attributed his decision to the belief that fraternization between instructors and trainees would have an ill effect on the group’s training,” Moye said. “In truth, the effort was a transparent attempt to circumvent both the letter and the law...which prohibited segregation of base facilities by race.”
‘You can’t come in here.’
On April 5, 1945, the Black officers of the 477th began an orchestrated attempt over two days to integrate the white officers’ club at Freeman Field. The officers were led by Lt. Coleman A. Young, a bombardier and navigator and former United Auto Workers organizer in Detroit, who had successfully helped integrate the officers’ club at the Midland, Texas Army Air Field the year before. At a strategy session a few days before the start of the Freeman Field sit-ins, Young and a group of Black officers decided to use nonviolent action and to enter the white officers’ club in small groups so it wouldn’t appear coordinated. “They were prepared for our arrival, expectin’ trouble. MPs were there to keep us out of the club the night we arrived,” said Young, who later became the first Black mayor of Detroit. “We were gonna scatter, play pool, get a drink, buy cigarettes. The white captain says: ‘You can’t come in here.’ We just brushed past him and scattered. The commandin’ officer was livid and placed us under arrest, at quarters.”
Young, who recounted the episode in an interview with the oral historian Studs Terkel, went on to say it was his responsibility to convince others to continue with the plan. “After the first nine it was tough gettin’ the next nine. But we broke the ice, and two more groups went in and were place[d] under arrest... They wanted to put us in a position of disobeying a post command.”
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Base Regulation 85-2
With the exception of three officers charged with “jostling” a white commanding officer at the officers’ club, Young and 57 other officers who were arrested were released to their quarters on April 9, four days after the start of the sit-ins. But Hunter and Selway doubled down on their racist policies by issuing Base Regulation 85-2 to strengthen and clarify their position on the issue, according to Lawrence P. Scott and William M. Womack, authors of Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Base Regulation 85-2, which mandated segregation of officers by unit (which, in effect, meant race), was posted around the base. Selway ordered all officers, Black and white, to appear individually before a board and attest that they fully understood 85-2. All 292 white officers signed the regulation, while 101 of 422 Black officers refused. “A few of the trainee officers signed it as written, some signed it striking out the words ‘and fully understand,’ and others signed it, but wrote endorsements claiming it was racial discrimination,” Selway wrote in his report.
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The 101 Black officers who refused to sign were placed under arrest and flown secretly to Godman Army Air Field in Kentucky, where they were put on temporary duty for 90 days. The three Black officers accused of “jostling” with military police were held back at Freeman to be court-martialed. According to Moye, Black officers still at Freeman continued to try entering the white officers’ club. “When the men approached the club, Colonel Patterson would ask who the spokesperson for the group was, and all of the members would respond, ‘no one,’” Moye wrote.
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A Consideration of Capital Punishment
On April 25, 1945, 12 days after their arrest, the 101 Black officers were released with a reprimand on their records—after pressure from the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Black press. According to Scott and Womack in their book Double V, General Hunter had wanted the men court-martialed, but the Judge Advocate General’s office deemed the administrative reprimand adequate punishment because “trying the officers on violation of the 64th Article of War could result in capital punishment, something the army could not politically afford.”
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Following the airmen’s release, George S. Schuyler, a columnist for the African American weekly Pittsburgh Courier, praised the decision: “It is impossible for any man to be a first-class officer if constantly forced into a second-class position,” he wrote. “It is a pleasure to note that the War Department has had the good sense to release these young men to duty.”
The three Black officers charged with “jostling” in the white officers’ club stood trial. Two, Marsden Thomson and Shirley Clinton, were acquitted and fined. Roger “Bill” Terry, the third officer, was represented by the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. A University of California, Los Angeles graduate, Terry was court-martialed and acquitted on the charge of disobeying an officer, but found guilty of “jostling.” Given a $150 fine, he received a dishonorable discharge in November 1945 with a reduction in rank.
The Civil Rights Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen
In 1995, President Bill Clinton pardoned Terry, restored his rank to Second Lieutenant and refunded his $150. At the same time, Clinton removed General Hunter’s reprimand letters from the permanent files of 15 of the 104 officers charged in the protest. The Air Force also promised to remove the reprimands of the other 89 officers once they were filed.
Terry, who went on to earn a law degree and work as an investigator in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, never got to fly overseas during World War II. But he did witness how the 477th Bombardment Group’s nonviolent direct action tactics at Freeman Field influenced the civil rights movement where sit-ins at lunch counters and bus stations transformed the American South.
“We think that it broke the camel’s back because they had to recognize the fact that 104 officers were arrested, and that they all defied this order, and the order was said to be illegal,” Terry said in an interview for the National Park’s Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. “We feel—and I think I speak for most of the guys—that it was our advantage that we gave to the Negro people, that there would be no discrimination in the Army Air Force from that time on—at least officially. In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ordering all U.S. military forces to desegregate.
WATCH: Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America, premieres Saturday, June 19 at 8/7c on The HISTORY® Channel.