By Bill Robinson
As we celebrate American independence, I think this is a good time to reflect on the life of a remarkable American who was our neighbor.
When Frank D. Walker died April 28 at age 93, his pioneering service in World War II, along with other black fliers who became known as “the Tuskegee Airmen,” was widely recognized.
For years, however, few in Richmond knew just what he and others of his unit had accomplished. At best, most people probably considered him just another of the millions of Americans who answered their country’s call when racist, imperialist powers in Europe and Asia attempted to remake the world in their image.
I never got to know Mr. Walker, but from what his friends and family have told me, he thought of himself as just another American doing his patriotic duty.
As we all have come to realize, however, Frank Walker and the other Tuskegee Airmen did more than help save the world from Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. They also helped transform America.
His country and his community didn’t always do right by Frank Walker and other Americans of African descent, but he did right by his country.
Not until almost 20 years after WWII ended could he or other black people eat together a restaurant, sit in the same theater section or attend the same schools as white Kentuckians.
Still, he and others kept the faith so eloquently stated by Martin Luther King that someday America would “live up to its creed” and practice what the stirring words adopted on July 4, 1776, proclaimed, that all are created equal.
The African-American pilots who trained at what was then known as Tuskegee Institute knew they had a lot to prove when they entered military service. But they believed in themselves, just as they believed in the promise of America.
Few of us have the intelligence, skill or courage to fly a fighter plane in combat. But, the Tuskegee Airmen also had to overcome the all-too-common belief that they lacked those qualities. Although their wartime service exceeded even the highest expectations, some of their fellow Americans refused to believe it.
The wartime service of African-Americans, however, set the stage for the postwar Civil Rights movement. Like so many other changes the war brought about, there was no turning back for men like Frank Walker who engaged Germany’s so-called “master race” in aerial combat over Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.
A metal plaque on front of the Madison County Courthouse that lists local men who died fighting in the First World War, has two sections. One is marked “Colored.”
Although they were good enough to fight and die for their country, black men from Madison County were not considered good enough to have their names listed alongside white soldiers who died for their country in 1917-18.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who was profoundly offended upon seeing this plaque proposed that it be melted down and recast without the racial division.
I disagreed with him. That history should not be erased, and we must not allow ourselves to forget what past evils existed. We need to remember what once was to realize how far we’ve had to come, and be reminded of how far we may still need to go.
As we cheer, sing and drink toasts to our country this July 4, let us remember the words Thomas Jefferson pinned 237 years ago, even if he did not fully live up to them.
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Frank Walker did his duty as an American, and we who have less reason to complain than he did need to do ours.