A Reflection

I don’t usually post about politics. But yesterday’s events recall a personal story that I’d like to pass along, not to argue or advocate, but simply to reflect.

In his speech last night, President-Elect Obama reminded us of the changes that have occurred in the 106-year life span of one woman who voted yesterday.

My mother was born and raised in a small town in Mississippi (my father was from upstate NY—they met when she was a librarian at an Air Force base; he was a pilot in training). I spent many summers in my youth visiting her side of the family. She was an only child, so I had only great aunts and uncles, all of whom had been born before or close to the turn of the 20th century. (If I’d taken better notes, I might have taken a run at Faulkner or O’Conner—the stories they could tell!). I provide that information as background, given that I’m about as white-bread and WASPish as they come.

About 10 years ago, when I was working on the first WWII version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Combat Flight Simulator, I helped bring several Tuskegee Airmen on board as consultants. At the product launch event, some of the famous fighter pilots joined the team for a dinner, and I sat next to an elegant man who still epitomized “officer and a gentlemen” long after he had retired from the Air Force.

As the evening went on, our conversation wandered to the South, and he told me a remarkable story about one of his visits home during (or maybe it was shortly after) the war. He was in his USAAF uniform, a captain, or perhaps a major, distinguished by the wings of a military pilot.

On the bus trip home to Alabama, he had to ride in the back. At the depot, he needed to call his family. But the clerk wouldn’t let him use the “whites-only” phone, and the one set aside for blacks was, of course, out of order. Now, he told me about those humiliations almost as matters of fact.

Then, as we spoke about the integration of schools, he said something astonishing. Recalling how in the 1950s and 1960s young men and women across the South had walked gauntlets of cursing, jeering, spitting segregationists on their way up schoolhouse steps, this man who had faced the Luftwaffe in the skies over Europe paused, and, in a quiet, firm voice, confided, “I don’t think I could have just walked past those people. I don’t think I could have looked straight ahead and just taken that.”

How far we’ve come.

Update: See this story from the Dec. 10, 2008 edition of the NY Times: Tuskegee Airmen Invited to Obama Inauguration.

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