Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

TOP STORY>> A hero’s welcome

Tuskegee airman says stand up for what’s right

BY JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Robert Decatur and other members of the storied Tuskegee Airmen may have been welcomed home as second-class citizens rather than conquering heroes after the end of the Second World War, but 60 years later, after a long and distinguished career at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, he was received with respect, enthusiasm and two standing ovations at North Pulaski High School on Tuesday as he spoke to about 200 students.

“Stand up for right and you’ll never be wrong,” Decatur, a retired judge from Titusville, Fla., told the students toward the end of an hour-long talk.

Decatur, 84, warned that historians have been “Very negligent in chronicling Black Americans in the military — all the way to the present day.”

When he was finished speaking, several teachers and about 10 students lined up to shake his hand, get their pictures taken with him and to get autographs.

The 50th chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., just chartered at Little Rock Air Force Base, installed officers and recognized Decatur on Monday by naming the chapter in his honor. They said they had been inspired by the judge at a previous meeting.
The all-black Tuskegee Airmen came into being just prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, when pilots and crews were needed for 50,000 aircraft.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the squadron at the insistence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Decatur said.

In January 1943, Decatur became the first black pre-flight cadet to be sent to Keesler Field, Biloxi, Miss., for basic training.
At the time, blacks and whites had separate drinking fountains, bathrooms and restaurants, and both before and after the war, even the brave and accomplished airmen who saved perhaps hundreds of white soldiers and airmen with their skills as fighter pilots, were not allowed in the white officers’ clubs, he said.

He said that before the Tuskegee Airmen — so named for the Alabama Air Force Base where they were trained and based — becoming the fighter escorts for U.S. bombers headed deep into Germany and Poland, 70 percent of the bombers were shot down. After they became the escorts, not a single bomber they safeguarded was lost, he said.

Decatur told two tales of crippled and apparently doomed bombers saved from the German Luftwaffe and escorted to safety by the airmen.

Of the 966 Tuskegee Airmen, 140 are alive today, he said.

Josh Daniels, 15, a student, came forward to thank Decatur, saying his grandfather had been on a ship being attacked by the Luftwaffe when the airmen arrived to drive the German’s off.

Decatur, a retired district judge, looked trim and fit, his chiseled features set off by his full, silver head of hair.

He was at times good-humored, joking about his diminishing hearing, and at times very direct discussing problems of race, and the ways in which things have improved racially in this country.

Decatur had a hand in that as well, not only as part of the first group of black Americans ever to fly for the United States, but as a lawyer in 1964 — about the time the three civil rights voter registration workers were murdered in Mississippi and buried in a pond dam. Decatur, by then a lawyer, traveled to Mississippi to represent white and black students arrested for registering black voters.

In 1954, as a young lawyer at Howard Law School, Decatur helped prepare Brown vs. the (Topeka, Kan.) Board of Education, the suit that Thurgood Marshall argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wiley Branton, a Pine Bluff native, also was a lawyer working on that case.

As a judge, he’s heard about 10,000 cases he said, shaken hands with presidents and known the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks.

A Chicago native and one of 18 children, Decatur later moved to Cleveland, where he lived near and was acquainted with Cleve-land Browns legends Jim Brown and Paul Warfield.

As a younger man, he played baseball against Jackie Robinson and later played Class AAA baseball for Toronto with teammates Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella.

Decatur has also served as an ambassador and was the cover story in Onyx Magazine