“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Last Friday, October 25th was the 73rd anniversary of the promotion of Colonel Benjamin O. Davis to the Rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army. In 1940 as the nation prepared for war many experienced officers were being promoted, some to Flag or General Officer rank. However, Colonel Davis was different, he was black.
Seldom do we take the time to remember that it really wasn’t that long ago that African Americans were for all practical purposes less than full citizens. Jim Crow laws, discrimination, segregation and impediments to voting were the norm in much of the country. Separate but equal was that mantra of racists in power. Blacks no matter how educated, how patriotic or how successful were discriminated against, held back and in far to many cases the target of hatred, violence and even murder. It was in such a climate that Benjamin O Davis served as an officer in the US Army.
While American History would not be the same without the life, work and prophetic ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. much of his hard fought success was brought about by men and women who served in the military, or for that matter played the game of baseball in an exemplary manner in an otherwise whiter than white bread world.
Dr. King was born in a time when most of the country was segregated when “separate by equal” was simply façade to cover the lie that in no way did African Americans have equal rights or privileges in the United States. Something some leaders attempt today through the use of voter purges that target Blacks, hispanics and other minorities. Sad to day that some things don’t change. Racists are still racists.
In 1922 Carrie Williams Clifford published the poem The Black Draftee from Georgia which alluded to to the lynching of Wilbur Little, a soldier and veteran of the First World War who was lynched by a mob for wearing his uniform after being warned not to:
What though the hero-warrior was black?
His heart was white and loyal to the core;
And when to his loved Dixie he came back,
Maimed, in the duty done on foreign shore,
Where from the hell of war he never flinched,
Because he cried, “Democracy,” was lynched.
Dr King was born less than 60 years after the secession of the Southern states from the Union and the beginning of the American Civil War. Though that blood conflict had freed the slaves it had not freed African Americans from prejudice, violence and discrimination. When Dr. King began his ministry and was thrust upon the national stage as the strongest voice for equal rights and protections for blacks the discrimination and violence directed towards blacks was a very real and present reality in much of the United States.
Buffalo Soldiers in the 1880s
However there were cracks beginning to appear in the great wall of segregation in the years preceding Dr. King’s ascent to leadership as the moral voice of the country in the matter of racial equality. In baseball Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in Major League Baseball opening a door for others who would become legends of the game as well as help white America begin its slow acceptance of blacks in sports and the workplace.
Likewise the contributions of a father and son Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. and General Benjamin O. Davis Jr. were advancing the cause of blacks in the military which eventually led to the desegregation of the military in 1948. The impact of these two men cannot be underestimated for they were trailblazers who by their lives, professionalism and character blazed a trail for African Americans in the military as well as society.
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was a student at Howard University when the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. He volunteered for service and was commissioned as a temporary 1st Lieutenant in the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered out of service in 1899 but enlisted as a private in the 9th United States Cavalry one of the original Buffalo Soldiers regiments.
Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines
He was initially the unit clerk of I troop of 3rd Squadron and was promoted to be the squadron Sergeant Major. He was commissioned while the unit was deployed to the Philippines counterinsurgency campaign and assigned to the 10th Cavalry.
Early in his career Davis was assigned in various positions including command, staff and instruction duties including as Professor of Military Science and Tactics in various ROTC programs. He reached the rank of rank of temporary Lieutenant Colonel and Squadron Commander of 3rd and later 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry from 1917-1920 in the Philippines before reverting to the rank of Captain on his return as part of the post World War I reduction in force.
He continued to serve during the inter-war years and assumed command of the 369th Infantry Regiment New York National Guard in 1938. He was promoted to Brigadier General on 25 October 1940 becoming the first African American elevated to that rank in the United States Army and was assigned as Commander 4th Brigade 2nd Cavalry Division. He later served in various staff positions at the War Department and in France and was instrumental in the integration of the U.S. Military. He retired after 50 years service in 1948 in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding. He was a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission from 1953-1961 and died in 1970.
Colonel Davis with his son Cadet Benjamin O Davis Jr.
His son Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was appointed to West Point in 1932. He graduated and was commissioned in 1936 graduating 35 out of 278, the fourth African American graduate of West Point. During his time at the Academy most of his classmates shunned him and he never had a roommate. Despite this he maintained a dogged determination to succeed. The Academy yearbook made this comment about him:
“The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.”
He was denied entrance to the Army Air Corps because of his race and assigned to the Infantry first to the all lack 24th Infantry Regiment at Ft Benning where he was not allowed in the Officers Club due to his race. Upon his commissioning the Regular Army had just 2 African American Line Officers, 2nd Lieutenant Davis and his father Colonel Davis. After completion of Infantry School he was assigned as an instructor of Military Science and Tactics and the Tuskegee Institute.
Benjamin O Davis Jr in WWII
In 1941 the Roosevelt Administration moved to create a black flying unit and Captain Davis was assigned to the first black class at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and in March 1942 one his wings as one of the first 5 African Americans to complete flight training. In July 1942 the younger Davis was assigned as Commanding Officer of the 99th Pursuit Squadron which served in North Africa and Sicily flying Curtiss P-40 Warhawks.
He was recalled to the United States in September 1943 to command the 332nd Fighter Group. However some senior officers attempted to prevent other black squadrons from serving in combat alleging that the 99th had performed poorly in combat. Davis defended his squadron and General George Marshall ordered an inquiry which showed that the 99th was comparable to white squadrons in combat and during a 2 day period over the Anzio beachhead the pilots of the 99th shot down 12 German aircraft.
Colonel Benjamin O Davis Jr (left) with one of his Tuskegee Airmen
Davis took the 332nd to Italy where they transitioned to P-47 Thunderbolts and in July 1944 to the P-51 Mustang which were marked with a signature red tail. During the war, the units commanded by Davis flew more than 15,000 sorties, shot down 111 enemy planes, and destroyed or damaged 273 on the ground at a cost of 66 of their own planes. Their record against the Luftwaffe was outstanding and their protection of the bombers that they escorted was superb with very few bombers lost while escorted by them men that the Luftwaffe nicknamed the Schwarze Vogelmenschen and the Allies the Red-Tailed Angels or simply the Redtails. Davis led his Tuskegee Airmen to glory in the war and their performance in combat helped break the color barrier in the U.S. Military which was ended in 1948 when President Truman signed an executive order to end the segregation of the military. Colonel Davis helped draft the Air Force plan and the Air Force was the first of the services to fully desegregate.
Lieutenant General Benjamin O Davis Jr
Colonel Davis transitioned to jets and let the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing against Chinese Communist MIGs in the Korean War. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 1954 and served in numerous command and staff positions. He retired in 1970 with the rank of Lieutenant General and was advanced to General while retired by President Clinton in 1998. He died in 2002 at the age of 89.
The legacy of Benjamin O. Davis Senior and Benjamin O. Davis Junior is a testament to their character, courage and devotion to the United States of America. They helped pioneer the way for officers such as General Colin Powell and helped change this country for the better. During times when discrimination was legal they overcame obstacles that would have challenged lesser men.
Benjamin O. Davis Junior remarked “My own opinion was that blacks could best overcome racist attitudes through achievements, even though those achievements had to take place within the hateful environment of segregation.”
Such men epitomize the selfless service of so many other African Americans who served the country faithfully and “by the content of their character” triumphed over the evil of racism and helped make the United States a more perfect union. Today many African Americans as well as members of other minorities including racial minorities, women and gays serve with distinction in the military. What they do today is in many part a direct result of the courage, character and convictions of men like Benjamin O Davis Sr and Benjamin O Davis Jr.
Unfortunately the struggle for equality is never over and current generation will have to work just as hard to ensure that the freedoms won at so great a cost are not lost. General Colin Powell, the first Black man to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State commented in 1994:
“I stand here today as a direct descendant of those Buffalo Soldiers and of the Tuskegee Airmen and all the black men and women who have served the nation in uniform, I will never forget my debt to them. I didn’t just show up. I climbed on the backs of those who never had the kind of opportunity that I had.”