Armed Black Christians Fought the KKK and Other Struggles for Freedom
History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice

Khalid Elhassan - May 12, 2020

African American history is steeped in the fight for freedom and against oppression. Some of the best known events in that narrative of resistance include the Underground Railroad, black soldiers in blue during the Civil War, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Following are forty fascinating things about lesser known African Americans who put it all on the line in the fight for freedom and justice.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Newspaper cover depicting the massacre of 25 blacks in a 1906 race riot in Atlanta. Le Petit Journal

40. Fighting For Civil Rights Was Deadly Dangerous

For years after the Civil War, blacks in much of the former Confederacy were able to vote, run for office, and get elected. However, the end of Reconstruction ushered in a concerted disenfranchisement campaign, relying mainly on poll taxes and discriminatory voter registration practices. By the 1890s, blacks were effectively eliminated from politics in the South, and subjected to the full panoply of Jim Crow laws.

Disenfranchisement was backstopped by terror and violence, perpetrated by white police, and reinforced by white vigilantes such as the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks seen as “troublemakers” for attempting to assert their rights, or worse, organizing other blacks into taking collective action to assert their rights, were frequently beaten, mutilated, imprisoned, or lynched. That was the environment in which the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s emerged and operated.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
One of the first nine students to attend the recently desegregated Little Rock High School in Arkansas, in 1957, trailed by a hate filled mob spewing epithets as she walks to school. History

39. Standing Up to Racist Violence

By the time the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s, the KKK had grown accustomed to preying on African Americans with impunity. Close cooperation between the Klan and law enforcement was pervasive and often open. Southern cops frequently denied civil rights activists police protection, and sometimes cooperated with the KKK in murdering them. In 1964, for example, police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, detained three civil workers, then coordinated with the Klan to lynch them upon their release from jail.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A white mob assaulting a black journalist covering the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1957. The Guardian

So during the 1950s and much of the 1960s, the Klan had free rein to terrorize and murder civil rights workers. The widespread violence prompted many activists to arm themselves for self protection. Dr. Martin Luther King’s home had so many firearms, that visitors compared it to an arsenal. Police having demonstrated clearly that black lives did not matter, armed black groups emerged for self defense. Most notable among those pioneers were the Deacons For Defense and Justice.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Black GIs in WWII. National Archives

38. The Deacons for Defense and Justice

“The Freedom Summer” in 1964 saw intensive efforts by volunteers to register as many black voters as possible in the South. One organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set up a Freedom House as a base for its volunteers in Jonesboro, Louisiana. In response, the local KKK went on a terror spree, harassing and attacking volunteers and blacks, and burning five black churches, a Baptist center, and a Masonic lodge.

So some local black WWII and Korean War veterans founded a self defense group to protect civil rights workers and their families, and the black community in general. It was led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist and an ordained minister. In a nod to the members’ religiosity, the group came to be known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice: most were practicing Christians, and they aimed to serve their community in a Christian manner.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Some of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. Gat Daily

37. Defend Rights “By Any and All Honorable and Legal Means”

The Deacons had strict membership requirements. They accepted only male citizens 21 or older, preferably married, and with prior military experience. They refused to take on those with a reputation for “hotheadedness”, demanded discipline in the face of provocation, and a commitment to act only in self defense.

Their charter explained that the goal was “the defense of civil rights, property rights, and personal rights … by any and all honorable and legal means to the end that justice may be obtained“. Every Deacon had to pledge his life to the defense of justice, civil rights activists, and the people of their community.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A Klansman dangling a noose in an attempt to intimidate black voters. Smithsonian Magazine

36. Taking on the KKK and Local Cops

The Deacons’ first show of force occurred when protests commenced in Jonesboro, Louisiana, against the segregation of public swimming pools and the public library. The KKK and local police organized a caravan to intimidate the protesters and the black community. Twenty armed Deacons showed up to stare down the caravan, which hastily withdrew when confronted with the prospect of armed opposition.

The Deacons eventually expanded beyond Jonesboro, and established twenty one formal chapters, and over forty affiliate, in other cities. Setting up communications networks using walkie-talkies and CB radios, they conducted armed patrols of black neighborhoods to ward off the Klan and white vigilantes.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Black students picketing a school. Mental Floss

35. Protecting Lawful Protesters

In early 1965, black students were peacefully picketing Jonesboro’s high school over its racist practices – black students were barred from taking some classes – when hostile police showed up. They summoned fire trucks and prepared to use fire hoses against the black kids, when armed Deacons arrived on the scene and proceeded to load shotguns within sight of the police. The police ordered the fire trucks to withdraw.

It was the first time in the twentieth century that armed blacks had successfully used weapons to protect a lawful protest from an attack by law enforcement. Louisiana’s governor was eventually forced to intervene, and he compelled Jonesboro’s authorities to work out a compromise with the protesters. It was the first capitulation to the Civil Rights movements by a Deep South governor.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Robert Hicks, vice president of the Bogalusa Voters League, inspects a vehicle belonging to civil rights volunteers, which had been shot up in front of his house – he returned fire, and the attackers fled. Associated Press

34. Standing Up For the Oppressed

In Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Deacons took on the Klan directly. In one confrontation, a Klansman was killed, and another was injured. On another occasion, a caravan of Klan cars drove through a black neighborhood shouting epithets and firing into some homes at random. To their shock, this time they received a fusillade of return fire, prompting the caravan to burn rubber as it fled. In another instance, white high school students had been in the habit of beating up black classmates, until the black kids fought back. Armed Klansmen showed up at the school, only to be countered by armed Deacons. The Klansmen withdrew.

The authorities eventually gave in, and abandoned the town’s segregationist practices. Bogalusa even hired its first black sheriff’s deputy, but the Klan responded by murdering him just a few days after his appointment. The mounting tensions eventually forced a federal intervention, and the US government used a Reconstruction-era law to force the local police to protect civil rights workers.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Black demonstrators arriving in Franklinton, Louisiana, after a two day march from Bogalusa. Face 2 Face Africa

33. Beating Back the Klan

Wherever the Deacons established themselves, white racists lost their ability to openly terrorize blacks. The group’s branches were effective in affording civil rights workers a degree of security to go about their business of registering blacks to vote. Even those committed to nonviolence appreciated the protection. As one CORE activist put it: “CORE is nonviolent, but we have no right to tell Negroes … that they do not have the right to defend their homes

By the late 1960s, the environment had changed so much that the Deacons were no longer necessary. Between the long overdue prosecution of violent Klansmen, the gains secured by the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit of armed self-defense fostered by the Deacons, white racists’ ability to attack blacks with impunity was sharply curtailed. By 1968, the Deacons were in decline, and by the end of the decade, they had all but exited the scene.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Slaves getting branded. Gauk ArtiFact

32. For Many Slaves, the British Meant Freedom While the Patriots Meant Bondage

Nowadays, the struggle between Britain and the American colonists is usually presented as a fight for liberty between tyranny and a people yearning for freedom. Which was true – from the perspective of whites fighting the British. However, from the perspective of many colonists of African descent, it was not so straightforward. The side that actually offered them liberty and freedom from tyranny was not the Patriots, but the British.

In 1775, Samuel Johnson summed up one of the greatest contradictions of the Patriots’ fight for freedom: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negros?” Many of the American colonists’ foremost advocates of liberty and equality owned hundreds of other humans. Some, such as Thomas Jefferson, lived lavishly off the sweat and blood of hundreds of slaves who toiled for their benefit, driven by the lash and the threat of extreme violence.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A black loyalist in the American Revolution. YouTube

31. Pushing Blacks Out of the Patriot Armies, and Into the Arms of the British

Blacks fought for the Patriots in the war’s early battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. However, when George Washington assumed command, he was appalled to see blacks bearing arms. With slave uprisings a constant fear of slaveholders, the sight of armed blacks was guaranteed to discomfit a plantation owner such as the army’s new commander.

So Washington forbade the recruitment of black soldiers, and eventually purged them from the Continental Army. It was only later, after his forces were drastically reduced by desertions and diseases, that Washington was forced to turn a blind eye to black soldiers. The British thought differently about arming blacks, and sought to turn the rebels’ slaves against them. In November of 1775, Virginia’s British governor, Lord Dunmore, offered slaves their freedom in exchange for service to the Crown.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A freed slave fighting for the British during the American Revolution. Imgur

30. Fleeing to the British

In 1779, Britain’s commander in chief in America, General Henry Clinton, issued the Phillipsburgh Proclamation, decreeing freedom for any slaves who fled their rebel masters and made it to British lines. Bondsmen took up the offer and fled by the thousands, hoping to trade slavery under the Americans for freedom with the British. In South Carolina a quarter of the slave population – about 25,000 slaves – fled. So did a quarter of Georgia’s slaves, and about 30,000 slaves in Virginia.

Many runaways were caught, savagely punished, then returned to slavery, but those who reached British territory were free. During the war, over 100,000 slaves escaped bondage by making their way to freedom behind British lines. That struck slaveholders such as Thomas Jefferson as monstrous, and convinced many of the undecided slave owners to side with the Patriots. In a nod to that sentiment, the Declaration of Independence, notwithstanding the “All men are created equal” bit, assails the British for offering the colonists’ slaves an opportunity to secure that equality.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Edward Allen Carter, Jr. The Purple Heart Foundation

29. The African American Teen Who Fought Japanese Militarists in China, Fascists in Spain, and Nazis in France

The life of Edward Allen Carter, Jr., could be summed up thus: he wanted to fight bad guys, of whom there were many in his lifetime. He began his crusade at age fifteen by fighting Japanese militarism in China.

He then took off to take a whack at fascism, fighting general Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Then, like a video game character working his way up to the highest level to take on the Big Boss, he capped it off by taking on Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, earning a Medal of Honor in the process.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Christian missionaries in China. Sixth One

28. A Black Teen in China

Edward Allen Carter, Jr., was born in California in 1916 to an African American father and an East Indian mother. His parents, Christian missionaries, took him with them first to India, where he grew up, and then to China, which used to be a huge missionary magnet.

An upbringing in India and China, viewed at the time as the epitomes of the mysterious and exotic Orient, added layers of complexity to Carter. Blacks were very thin on the ground in China, which set him apart. While it would not be quite accurate to describe Edward as a social misfit, his background, the restrictions imposed by his religious parents, and the environment in which he grew up, all combined to form him in a different mold.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Soldiers of the Chinese 19th Route Army during the Shanghai Incident. Wikimedia

27. Fighting the Imperial Japanese Army

The first major manifestation of just how different Edward Allen Carter was came when he was still in his teens. While there is nothing unusual about teenagers acting up, rebelling, and testing boundaries, Edward’s teenage rebellion, when it came, did not just test boundaries: it shattered them. No smoking, drinking, drugs, or hanging out with punks and ne’er do wells: that was for poseurs. Instead, Carter ran away at age of fifteen to go fight the Imperial Japanese Army.

In 1932, the Japanese attacked Shanghai, and a teenaged Carter ran away from home to fight with the Chinese Nationalists. Joining the Chinese 19th Route Army, he endured aerial bombing from Japanese planes, shelling from Japanese artillery, and ferocious ground attacks from Japanese infantry.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Japanese troops burning residential districts in Shanghai. Wikimedia

26. Getting Commissioned as an Officer in the Chinese Army at Age Fifteen

Fighting the Japanese in Shanghai, the teenaged Edward Allen Carter demonstrated a knack for combat. So much that he got a brevet commission to lieutenant in the Chinese army. He was sorely disappointed when he was yanked from the front lines and out of the Chinese military, when it was discovered that he was only fifteen.

To Lieutenant Carter’s chagrin, he was discharged from the Chinese military and returned to his parents. By then, however, he had gotten his first taste of combat, and decided he liked it. He would be back at it, before long.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Flickr

25. Fighting the Fascists

While in China, Edward Allen Carter developed a taste for leftist politics, and when the Spanish Civil War erupted, it drew him like a magnet. The war pitted fascists under Francisco Franco, generously backed by Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, against an elected leftist Republican government. An antifascist to the core, Carter travelled to Europe to fight on the Republican side.

He made it to Spain, and enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – an American volunteer unit composed primarily of leftists, that fought as part of the International Brigade against the fascists. Unfortunately, the bad guys won, and as Franco’s fascists surged to victory and the Republican government collapsed, Carter and the rest of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were forced to flee to France in 1938. From there, he made his way back to America.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A 12th Armored Division soldier guarding German POWs. Pintrest

24. Enlisting in Uncle Sam’s Army

Edward Allen Carter enlisted in the US Army in September of 1941, just three months before Japan struck Pearl Harbor. With his background and experience, it took only months before Carter was promoted to staff sergeant. However, his background and experience also led to the opening of a counterintelligence file on him: globetrotting African Americans were rarities in those days. Globetrotting African Americas who spoke Hindi, Chinese, and German, and who had fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were rarer still.

The US Army did not know what to make of Carter. Eventually, an unknown intelligence officer deemed it advisable to put him under surveillance because his Spanish Civil War experience meant that he had “been exposed to communism“. The counterintelligence file also noted: “Subject… capable of having connections with subversive activities due to… early years (until 1938) in the Orient“. He was assigned to the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12th Armored Division.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
GIs trudging through snow during the Battle of the Bulge. National WWII Museum

23. Fighting the Nazis

Edward Allen Carter was shipped to Europe in 1944, but with typical Army logic, he was not assigned to one of the black combat units – few as those were in the day’s racially segregated US military – but to supply duties. However, racism had to make way, at least partially, to the dictates of necessity, and granted Carter another opportunity to fight in the front lines against the bad guys.

On December 16th, the Germans launched a surprise offensive that caught the Allies off guard. As the ensuing Battle of the Bulge raged and the Army desperately fought to contain the Germans, it ran short of replacement combat troops. So General Eisenhower instituted the volunteer Ground Force Replacement Command for rear echelon troops of all races. Staff Sergeant Carter immediately volunteered for combat duty.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Staff Sergeant Edward Allen Carter, Jr. Wikimedia

22. Accepting a Demotion to Fight

The ad hoc units cobbled up by the Ground Force Replacement Command were racially integrated, but on the basis that no black soldiers were to command white ones. To join, Carter had to accept a demotion from staff sergeant to private. Taking a whack at the Nazis in person was worth it, so Carter accepted. On March 23rd, 1945, near Speyer, Germany, he was riding on a tank when it was hit. As his medal citation described it:

When the tank on which he was riding received heavy bazooka and small arms fire, Sergeant Carter voluntarily attempted to lead a three-man group across an open field. Within a short time, two of his men were killed and the third seriously wounded. Continuing on alone, he was wounded five times and finally forced to take cover. As eight enemy riflemen attempted to capture him, Sergeant Carter killed six of them and captured the remaining two. He then crossed the field using as a shield his two prisoners from which he obtained valuable information concerning the disposition of enemy troops“.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Edward Allen Carter, family man. Alchetron

21. A Belated Medal of Honor

Edward Allen Carter spent a month in a hospital, recovering from his wounds. He was then restored to his rank of staff sergeant, and spent the rest of the war training troops. He tried to reenlist in 1949, but by then the Red Scare was on and America was in the grip of anticommunist hysteria. Carter’s background in China, which had recently fallen to the communists, and in the Spanish Civil War, where he had fought with the leftists of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, made him suspect. His bid for reenlistment was denied, and he was discharged from the Army.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Edward Allen Carter. Pintrest

He resumed civilian life, working in the tire business, and became a dedicated family man. In 1962, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which doctors attributed to wartime shrapnel still embedded in his neck. It killed him the following year. His wartime heroics had earned him a recommendation for a Medal of Honor, but due to racism, it was downgraded to a Distinguished Service. It was not until 1997 that the injustice was corrected, and Carter was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor his heroics had earned him in 1945.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Advertisement for the sale of slaves in colonial America. Voice of America

20. The Quaker’s Slave

In 1753, a slave named Titus Cornelius, later better known as Colonel Tye, was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He grew up toiling in the farm of a Quaker owner named John Corlis, who parted company with his denomination’s growing opposition to slavery. The few Quakers who did own slaves were in the habit of teaching their bondsmen how to read and write, then freeing them at age 21. Not so Titus’ master, who not only refused to educate his slaves, but was a cruel master to boot.

Slavery was gradually declining in New Jersey, and Titus’ master became one of the last slaveholders in Monmouth County. Titus grew up getting routinely whipped for trifles, and seeing other slaves enduring the same treatment. When Titus reached age 21, the age when most owners in the region – particularly Quakers – typically freed their slaves, it became clear that Corlis had no intention of freeing him. So Titus freed himself by running away in 1775.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A member of the Ethiopian Regiment, which fought for the British during the American Revolution. Wikimedia

19. Fighting In the Ethiopian Regiment

Luckily, Titus Cornelius escaped one day after Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, had issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who escaped their American masters to serve the British. So Titus made his way to Virginia, where the new freedman changed his name to Tye.

He settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, and initially made a living doing odd jobs. Eventually, Tye enlisted in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, and took to his new life under arms like a fish to water. The fortunes of war eventually returned him to New Jersey, and he ended up in Monmouth County, where he had been born and enslaved, as an armed fighter in British service. There, he would eventually earn his place in history as Colonel Tye.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A Black Loyalist in the American Revolution. Canadian Encyclopedia

18. Colonel Tye’s Homecoming

In his first combat experience, the Battle of Monmouth, June 28th, 1778, Tye captured a Patriot captain of the Monmouth militia, and returned with his captive to British held New York City. Having grown up in Monmouth County, Tye had intimate knowledge of the local geography, which made him well suited to the guerrilla warfare that wracked the region. While the Redcoats and the Continental Army fought each other in pitched battles, a nasty civil was simultaneously being fought between Loyalist and Patriot militias and armed bands throughout much of the colonies.

Guerrilla warfare was intense in New Jersey, a border region sandwiched between the British stronghold in New York, and the Patriot capital in Philadelphia. In Monmouth County, things got particularly vicious, as Patriot vigilantes took to hanging Loyalists and confiscating their property. That prompted William Franklin, New Jersey’s Loyalist governor despite being Benjamin Franklin’s son, to sponsor Loyalists in fighting fire with fire. In Tye, he found a great firebrand.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Black loyalist reenactors. Pintrest

17. The Black Brigade

Tye led a racially integrated Loyalist guerrilla group in a daring raid on Shrewsbury, NJ, that captured dozens of cattle and horses, as well as two prominent local Patriots. The guerrillas established a base named Refugeetown in Sandy Hook, at the northern end of the Jersey Shore. From there, they conducted nighttime raids that targeted prominent local Patriots, particularly slaveholders. Tye proved himself a successful guerrilla leader in the summer of 1779, with a hit and run campaign that terrorized and enraged the local Patriots, seizing food and provisions, destroying property, and freeing numerous slaves.

It was during this period that Tye became known as Colonel Tye – an honorific bestowed upon him by the British, albeit not an actual rank. In the winter of 1779, Colonel Tye joined the Black Brigade – a unit of about two dozen black Loyalists. They fought alongside the Queen’s Rangers – a white Loyalist unit that was eventually integrated by incorporating into its ranks the Black Brigade, and other black Loyalists.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Colonel Tye as portrayed in PBS’ Slavery and the Making of America. Wikimedia

16. Colonel Tye’s War Against Slave Owners

By 1779, the war in the northern colonies had entered a stalemate. So units such as the Queen’s Rangers and the Black Brigade fought to defend the Loyalist stronghold in New York, while the British shifted their military focus to the southern colonies. The Black Brigade continued Tye’s guerrilla campaign of raiding into Patriot held territory in Monmouth County and the surrounding region.

In addition to arming Tye and his men, the British paid them bonuses in gold for their raids and other successful military operations. The Black Brigade rustled cattle and other livestock, then drove it across British lines to feed Loyalist forces. Additionally, they seized valuables, and captured prominent Patriots, whom they took to New York as prisoners. One type of raiding for which Tye and his men needed little encouragement or financial reward from the British was against slave owners.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A Black Loyalist. Tumblr

15. The Black Brigade’s Liberation Crusade

The Black Brigade fell upon slaveholders with a special relish – paying particular attention to the farms and holdings of the brigade members’ former masters. They freed numerous slaves, or otherwise facilitated their escape into freedom behind British lines. They then helped transport the escapees to a new life as freedmen and freedwomen in Nova Scotia or other British holdings.

Tye and his men were particularly dreaded by their foes. As rumors flew that the Black Brigade planned to lead blacks in massacring whites in various parts of New Jersey, many Patriots were gripped by panic. As one commented: “The worst is to be feared from the irregular troops whom the so-called Tories have assembled from various nationalities- for example, a regiment of Catholics, a regiment of Negroes, who are fitted for and inclined towards barbarities, are lack in human feeling and are familiar with every corner of the country“.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
The capture of New Jersey Patriot Militia Captain Joshua Huddy. Wikimedia

14. The Black Brigade vs the Association of Retaliation

Fearful Patriots in Monmouth County set up an Association of Retaliation, and persuaded the Patriot governor to declare martial law. Throughout the opening months of 1780, the Black Brigade’s raids increased in both frequency and ferocity, as the fighting between Patriots and Loyalists descended into a cycle of tit for tat killings.

In September of 1780, Tye led a raid against a particularly vicious Patriot militia leader named Joshua Huddy, who had become infamous for his habit of executing Loyalist prisoners. The raiders succeeded in capturing Huddy, but he was then freed in a surprise Patriot counterattack. During the ensuing fight, Tye was shot in the wrist – a minor injury in of itself, but one which soon became infected. He died of gangrene and tetanus a few days later.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Maj. James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross of Dayton, Ohio, as he passes down the line during review of the first class of Tuskegee cadets; flight line at U.S. Army Air Corps basic and advanced flying school, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941. Wikimedia

13. Blacks Had to Fight Tooth and Nail For the Chance to Fight in the Air

African Americans tried to fly or serve as aerial observers in WWI, but were rejected. They included Eugene Bullard, a black pilot who flew for the French, because his own country’s air forces would not have him. Blacks were barred from US military aviation until pressure and successful lobbying by civil rights groups got Congress to pass a bill in 1939 to train black flyers.

The War Department and the military aviation establishment dragged their feet until 1941, when they finally gave in to pressure and created the 99th Pursuit Squadron. In accordance with the military’s racial segregation policies, it was an all black outfit. Training for the unit’s 47 officers and 429 men began in Tuskegee, Alabama, in July of 1941. The first class of five black fighter pilots graduated in March of 1942. They included Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps plane. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel that July, and placed in command of the 99th.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Tuskegee Airmen in front of a P-40 fighter. US Air Force

12. Resistance From the Army Air Forces’ Head Honcho

Even as the Tuskegee training pipeline began pumping out black aviators, most were left to cool their heels, with no assignments, as plans to deploy them were slow walked or resisted by higher ups. The US Army Air Forces’ commanding general, Henry “Hap” Arnold, was among those who were lukewarm to placing black officers in operational slots. As he put it: “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation“.

It took more public pressure from civil rights groups and the black press, plus the personal intercession of FDR, before the military finally relented, and declared the 99th combat ready in April of 1943. It was shipped to North Africa, where it flew P-40 Warhawks as operational fighters. Its first combat assignment was to participate in Operation Corkscrew, the air assault on the Italian island of Pantelleria, to clear the way for the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
An Office of War Information poster wishing the Tuskegee Airmen good luck on their first combat mission. National Archives

11. Earning a Distinguished Unit Citation

The 99th Pursuit Squadron flew from Tunis to carry out Operation Corkscrew, its first combat mission, on June 2nd, 1943. It was an auspicious start for the Tuskegee Airmen. Pantelleria, with a garrison of about 11,000 Italians and 100 Germans, surrendered on June 11th – the first time in history that a sizeable ground force surrendered because of aerial attacks.

However, the 99th was unfairly criticized by some white aviators – including their own commander – who accused the unit of “failure to … display aggressiveness and daring for combat“, and called for its disbandment. The 99th was cleared by an Army Air Forces investigation, which revealed that the unit had performed just as well or better than other squadrons flying P-40s. Rather than disbandment, the close look at the black flyers’ performance ended up earning their squadron a Distinguished Unit Citation.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Flight instructor Lindwood Williams at Tuskegee Army Air Field, circa 1943. National Air and Space Museum

10. Shooting Down Nazis in Italy

After distinguishing themselves in Operation Corkscrew, the men of 99th Pursuit Squadron flew in support of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, in July of 1944. Once airfields were secured in Sicily, the black flyers relocated from North Africa to that island, then flew in support of the invasion of Italy that September. The 99th was then tasked with providing close air support to the US 5th Army during some of its major operations, such as the capture of Foggia and its vital airfields, and the amphibious Anzio landings.

Attached to the 79th Fighter Group, the black flyers of the 99th saw significant action as one of eight fighter squadrons defending the Anzio beachhead from German aerial attacks. On January 27th to 28th, 1944, the eight squadrons defending Anzio collectively shot down 32 German airplanes, with the 99th claiming the highest score, with 13 kills.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
99th Pursuit Squadron patch. Wikimedia

9. Earning a Second Distinguished Unit Citation

A week after its exploits at Anzio, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and tasked with protecting harbors, escorting convoys, and flying armed reconnaissance missions. The unit also provided close air support to the French and Polish armies during their assault on Monte Cassino in May of 1944. The 99th distinguished itself in the latter engagement, first surprising and devastating German infantry massing for a counterattack, then bombing and strafing a nearby strongpoint, forcing its surrender to French colonial troops. That performance earned the unit its second Distinguished Unit Citation.

In the meantime, the training base in Tuskegee kept pumping out more black aviators. By February, 1944, there were three all black fighter squadrons ready and waiting in the US: the 100th, 301st, and 302nd. The units were shipped to North Africa, where they were combined into the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The new group with its novice squadrons was then shipped to Italy, where it was joined by the now-veteran 99th Pursuit Squadron in June, 1944.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Lieutenant Charles Bailey, with his boot on the wheel of the P-51 Mustang named for his father. Don Moore War Tales

8. “The Black Birdmen”

The Tuskegee Airmen switched from P-40s to Bell P-39 Airacobras in March of 1944, then upgraded to P-47 Thunderbolts in June. In July, 1944, they were finally equipped with the airplane with which they became most associated: the P-51 Mustang. Operating out of Ramitelli Airfield in Campomarino on the Adriatic coast, the 332nd Fighter Group was tasked with escorting the Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers.

From then until war’s end, the Tuskegee airmen accompanied bombers on strategic raids. The black flyers flew cover on missions targeting oil refineries, marshalling yards, factories, and airfields. The missions took them to Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, and Poland. The 332nd earned an impressive combat record while escorting the heavy bombers, whose aircrews referred to the black flyers as “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint used on their airplanes’ tails. They earned another nickname from their opponents: “Schwarze Vogelmenschen“, or “Black Birdmen”.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who commanded the 99th Pursuit Squadron, then the 332nd Fighter Group, in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. National Air and Space Museum

7. The Tuskegee Airmen’s Greatest Mission

The Tuskegee Airmen’s most famous mission, in which they went up against German Me 262 fighter jets, came on March 24th, 1945. That day, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis led 43 P-51s of the 332nd Fighter Group as bomber escorts for Fifteenth Air Force B-17s, who flew a 1600 mile round trip to raid a tank factory in Berlin.

The Luftwaffe put up stiff resistance, sending up FW 190s, Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, and 25 Me 262 jet fighters. Tuskegee Airmen Roscoe Brown, Charles Brantley, and Earl Lane, all managed to shoot down Luftwaffe jets over Berlin that day. The 332nd earned another Distinguished Unit Citations for its feats on that mission.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
A WWII war bonds poster, featuring a Tuskegee Airman. Wikimedia

6. The Black Airmen’s Track Record

The black squadrons flew 1578 combat missions, including 179 bomber escort missions, and put up some pretty good stats while they were at it. They lost bombers on only seven missions, for a total of 27 airplanes, compared to an average loss of 46 bombers for other Fifteenth Air Force P-51 fighter groups. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes, destroyed another 150 on the ground, and damaged 148 more. On the ground, they destroyed 600 rail cars, plus 350 trucks and motor vehicles. They also destroyed 40 boats and barges, plus a German torpedo boat.

Collectively, the Tuskegee Airmen earned three Distinguished Unit Citations. The first went to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for its performance during the aerial assault on Pantelleria in June of 1943. The 99th earned another DUC in May of 1944, for actions at Monte Cassino. The third Distinguished Unit Citation went to the 332nd Fighter Group (including the 99th Pursuit Squadron plus two other black squadrons, the 100th and 301st) for action over Berlin in March of 1945.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
332nd Fighter Group patch. Wikimedia

5. A Rich Haul of Medals, and a High Price in Blood

The Tuskegee Airmen turned out to be some of the best fighter pilots in the US Army Air Forces, putting the lie to the predictions that blacks were unsuited to fly combat. During the conflict, Tuskegee Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts.

Their accomplishments came at a price. Nearly a thousand pilots were trained at Tuskegee, of whom 355 were deployed overseas. 68 of them were killed in combat or accidents related thereto. Another 12 were killed in training and on non-combat missions, and 32 were taken as prisoners of war.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Presenting the Congressional Gold Medal collectively to 300 Tuskegee Airmen and their widows at the Capitol Rotunda in 2007. Department of Defense

4. The Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen

The numbers might have spoken for themselves, but predictably, they did little to silence racists who continued to attack America’s black aviators. Nonetheless, after the US military was finally desegregated in 1948, the veteran black pilots blossomed in the newly formed United States Air Force, and found themselves in high demand.

The 332nd Fighter Group was deactivated in 1949, as part of the Air Force’s plan to achieve racial integration. As a last hurrah, shortly before deactivation, Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group won first place in the US Annual Gunnery Meet – a competition that included shooting aerial targets, strafing ground targets, and dropping bombs.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Medgar Evers. FBI

3. A Pioneering Civil Rights Activist

Medgar Wiley Evers (1925 – 1963) was a native of Decatur, Mississippi, who grew up and attended school in the days of Jim Crow. Racist laws required him to walk 12 miles every day to a dilapidated segregated school for blacks, rather than the better funded school closer to his home that was reserved for white students.

After graduating high school, Evers was inducted into the US Army in 1943 and sent to the European Theater of Operations. There, he fought in the Normandy Campaign, and served throughout the remainder of the war in France and Germany, before being honorably discharged at war’s end as a sergeant.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Medgar Evers. YouTube

2. Fighting For Freedom Overseas, While Deprived of Freedom at Home

Despite risking his life to free others from a racist tyranny overseas, Medgar Evers returned after war’s end to a racial tyranny at home that denied him basic freedom and equality because of the color of his skin. He became a civil rights activist, and protested the racism of his era and area by organizing demonstrations and drawing attention to the grave injustices stemming from Jim Crow laws.

He also organized boycotts of companies that practiced discrimination, sought to end segregation in public places, and strove to integrate state-funded schools. He applied to the segregated University of Mississippi Law School in 1954, and when his application was rejected, he fought in the courts. His case contributed to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools that year. He would go on to play an instrumental role in desegregating Mississippi’s public schools.

History Battle of Black Race for Liberty and Justice
Medgar Evers’ driveway, where he was murdered. UPI

1. Civil Rights Fight

Medgar Evers worked to overcome the disenfranchisement of blacks in Mississippi by organizing voter registration drives. He also organized boycotts, such as that of gas stations that denied blacks the use of their restrooms. Protesting injustice and rocking the boat has seldom been popular, and in late May, 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into Evers’ garage. A week later, somebody tried to run him over as he left the NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi. A week after, on June 12th, 1963, Evers was shot to death on his driveway by a KKK member.

As a World War II veteran, Evers was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, but he was not honored by the justice system. Despite the Klansman’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, and notwithstanding that he had publicly boasted of the murder, all-white juries twice deadlocked in 1964 and failed to reach a verdict. Evers’ killer remained free until 1994, when a third trial, this time before a racially mixed jury, finally secured a murder conviction.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Revolution Org – The Revolution’s Black Soldiers

Black Past – Deacons For Defense and Justice

Cobb, Charles E. – This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2015)

Egerton, Douglas R. – Death of Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (2009)

Face 2 Face Africa – The Deacons; the Black Armed Christians Who Protected MLK, Civil Rights Supporters Before Black Panthers

Holway, John B. – Red Tail, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force (1997)

Horne, Gerald – The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014)

Journal of Military History, 63, July 2003 – Jim Crow and Uncle Sam: The Tuskegee Flying Units and the US Army Air Forces in Europe in World War II

NAACP History – Medgar Evers

Nation, The, June 17th, 2004 – By Any Means Necessary

Schama, Simon – Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006)

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators

War History Online – Fought Japanese in China When 15, Then Franco in Spain, and in WWII Europe Killed 6 Germans and Took 2 POW

Wikipedia – Colonel Tye

Wikipedia – Edward A. Carter, Jr.

Wikipedia – Tuskegee Airmen

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