General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., USAF, 1912-2002 (Air Force photo via Wikipedia)
“..We are all at times racists and the uniquely qualified Obama is our valuable mirror of that ugliness: Wright may say things like “God d--n America” or “Dirty Word” Israel or “Clarence Colon,” but then it must be balanced by other truths like Obama’s own grandmother who also expresses fear of black males (his grandmother’s private angst is thus of the same magnitude as Wright’s outbursts broadcast to tens of thousands).
We don’t understand Wright’s history and personal narrative. But as someone who grew up in the hate-filled and racist 1960s, it was understandable that he was bound to mature into his present angry anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-white mentality. (As if all blacks did?)
Listening to Senator Obama’s speech (and reading the transcript), I wondered if the candidate—or his spiritual advisor—ever heard of General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first African-American to reach flag rank in the U.S. Air Force.
General Davis, who passed away on Independence Day 2002, was a product of the hate-filled and racist times that spawned Reverend Wright’s anger. But the obstacles of that era had a far different impact on General Davis; he not only overcame the evils of racism and segregation, he shattered them, opening doors of opportunity and equality for thousands who followed.
Davis grew up the son of an Army officer who felt the sting of racism first-hand. It took the elder Davis 42 years to reach the grade of brigadier general, after decades of back-water jobs as an ROTC instructor and advisor to black national guard units. In the segregated military of the 1920s and 30s, those positions represented the few assignment options for an African-American officer. Yet, the elder Davis persevered.
His son displayed the same tenacity. Entering West Point in 1932, the younger Davis was the only black member of his class. Expecting to be judged on ability and merit, his hopes were quickly dashed. Davis was “shunned” by his white classmates. Few of them spoke to him outside the line of duty. He never had a roommate. He ate his meals alone.
Rather than driving him from the academy (as some of his classmates hoped), the experience pushed Davis to excel. He graduated in 1936, 35th in a class of 276 cadets, and earning the respect of those who had ostracized him.
Davis faced even greater challenges as Commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, and later, the 332nd Fighter Group. First, Davis and his men had to prove their mettle as pilots, and overcome institutionalized racism. Before General Davis earned his pilot’s wings in 1942, Army documents stated that blacks “lacked the ability” to fly combat aircraft.
Once in combat, Davis set exacting standards and fought to keep his unit on the front-lines, refuting claims that his pilots once fled in the face of enemy attacks. Operating from bases in North Africa and Italy, the “Red Tails” compiled one of the greatest combat records of any fighter group during World War II.
Members of the unit shot down 14 German fighters in only two days over the Anzio beach head, and they were among the first to destroy ME-262 jets in combat. Allied bomber units often asked for escort by the 332nd, knowing the group’s reputation for deterring enemy fighter attacks. Davis (then a Colonel) led scores of combat missions himself, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Silver Star, among other decorations.
Davis commanded an F-86 wing during the Korean War and eventually reached the grade of Lieutenant General, retiring from active duty in 1970 (he was later advanced to four-star status by President Clinton in 1998). In civilian life, Davis served as public safety director for the city of Cleveland, and as Assistant Secretary of Transportation during the Ford Administration.
Toward the end of his life, Davis produced a remarkable autobiography (General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American) detailing his amazing career—and his long struggle against racism. Davis’ recollections are free of bitterness or remorse. Critics would say that’s because General Davis reached the peak of his profession. But in achieving that status, Davis endured offenses far worse than those suffered by Jeremiah Wright or Barack Obama.
Because of those experiences, General Davis understood the dark side of America’s soul. But he also understood a nation that rewards perseverance, hard work and character. Rather than condemning his country with hate speech (or pressing for government paternalism disguised as reform), General Davis fought for—and achieved—lasting change.
He never asked for more than a chance, knowing that his abilities--and those of other African-Americans--would bring down the barriers placed before them. History affirms the validity of Davis' beliefs, and their lasting impact. His achievements in World War II were a major reason that the Air Force was the first of the armed services to fully integrate, blazing a trail followed by the rest of the military and society as a whole.
In the popular vernacular, General Davis wasn't simply "down for the struggle," he was at the forefront of the struggle--and all Americans benefited from his efforts.
In various campaign speeches, Barack Obama has spoken eloquently about the nobility of public service. But we’ve rarely heard him mention the military in that context. Perhaps someone should send the senator a copy of the Davis autobiography. Maybe he would find greater inspiration in the life of General Davis than from the racist rants of Pastor Wright.