Today my father, David F. James, is among the tens of thousands of honored invitees who will witness the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. In particular, he will be among the hundred or so alumni of the Army Air Corps' 332nd all-black fighter group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Airmen were invited to the inauguration in recognition of their unique place in American history. Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007 that said, in part: "My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed."
In the spring of 1942, in the early months of World War II, my father was an 18-year-old college freshman in Chicago. He saw a recruitment poster on campus for an Army Air Corps officer training program. He went to the information meeting and stood in the back of the otherwise all-white gathering. He listened to the recruiter's speech, waited for more than an hour until the recruiter had answered everyone else's questions, then approached, asking quietly, "Is there anything like this for me?"
This was the reality of my father's early life and of the lives of generations of black men and women before him.
Waiting in the back, on the periphery, hoping against hope that after all the whites had taken their pick, there might be a seat in a classroom, a job, an apartment, a chance to serve in the military during wartime. In 1942, it was not only legal to exclude blacks from classrooms, workplaces, housing and other accommodations, it was the established order of the land. In any part of the country, you could look a black person straight in the face and say, "We don't accept/hire/rent to Negroes." No apology necessary. In fact, you might have been moved to express your amazement and annoyance that the Negro had had the temerity to ask.
Astonishingly, the Army recruiter told my dad about an experimental Army officer training program for Negroes down in Tuskegee, Ala. My father applied, aced the entrance exam and within a few months began his journey into the Army Air Corps. The journey began on a train out of Chicago with several other recruits bound for Tuskegee. As the train crossed into Tennessee, my dad and the other recruits were escorted to the "colored" car at the back of the train. When they disembarked at Tuskegee, they were met by a sheriff's deputy, who, before these Northern colored boys might take so much as a single step onto Alabama's red clay soil, read them the Alabama rape statute.
A lot has changed since then.
There are a number of anecdotal similarities between my father and Barack Obama. Both chose Chicago as their adopted homes, both studied law and both spent years as community organizers working for social justice. But the most striking similarity is the unflappable grace with which both men endured the indignities, great and small, to which they were subjected as young men. The circumstances differed, but the deck was stacked against them both.
That neither of these bright, talented men just gave up, accepted their "place" and succumbed to anger and bitterness is a testament to their remarkable fortitude. Instead, my dad waited silently at the back of the recruitment room and then jumped at his chance to become a Tuskegee Airman. Obama listened graciously as Americans (of all races) focused incessantly on the color of his skin before recognizing his gifts of intelligence, social insight and political acumen. Then he was elected president.
On this day, I'll reflect on two men's efforts to mold a better life for themselves, their children and others in a very flawed world. I'll celebrate the triumph of hope and promise over despair and bitterness. Sometimes one best sees one's own promise realized in the next generation. My father's journey from that train station platform in Tuskegee winds on. Today, more than six decades later, he pauses in joy on the steps of the nation's Capitol.
Happy Inauguration Day, Dad.