'We've Completed Our Mission'
Little Rock Nine, Tuskegee Airmen Receive Invitations to Witness the Fruits of Their Struggle

By Avis Thomas-Lester and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 13, 2008

In their youth, they helped build the road to freedom, through white mobs at a segregated high school in Little Rock and across the deadly skies above war-torn Europe.

Next month, the now-aging civil-rights pioneers of the Little Rock Nine and the Tuskegee Airmen will have the opportunity to stand at a high place on that road: the swearing-in of Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States and the country's first black commander in chief.

Officials said yesterday that invitations were being extended to the nine people who as teenagers desegregated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. Invitations to the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African American pilots and crews who fought during World War II, were announced earlier in the week.

"That we would be invited is only natural because of the pivotal role we played in starting the integration movement," retired Lt. William Broadwater, 82, of Upper Marlboro said of his fellow black pilots and support personnel, who pushed for military integration a decade before public schools and transportation were desegregated.

"The culmination of our efforts and others' was this great prize we were given on Nov. 4," he said. "Now we feel like we've completed our mission. This inauguration will be the ultimate result."

The invitations were offered by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is coordinating the swearing-in at the west front of the Capitol. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who suggested the Little Rock invitation, said: "The Little Rock Nine changed the course of American history. . . . They should be here, front and center."

But not all the invitees will be able to attend. Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford, 67, who still lives in the house where she grew up, said she can't afford the trip.

"I never thought I'd see it, because racism is so much a part of America," she said. "That will continue to live as long as racism is taught at home."

Many of the airmen are infirm. Lt. Col. Hiram Mann, 87, of Titusville, Fla., who uses a wheelchair, said he won't be able to come to the inauguration but will be rooted in front of his television.

"The last two times I have come to Washington, D.C., for events, it has been difficult," he said. "I'd rather watch it at home where I can be comfortable, but I'm so proud that we were invited."

Eckford was one of the nine black teenagers who braved enraged white mobs, the National Guard and the hostile governor of Arkansas to attend the then-all white high school three years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools illegal.

The black students were harassed and hounded by white students and parents, and their struggle made headlines around the world. Minnijean Brown-Trickey, 67, of Little Rock. "I was scared to death," she said yesterday. "We didn't cry. Not a single one of us cried. Publicly."

The invitation is "an indication that [there is] a sense of what came before and how the preparation was made for [Obama], half a century ago or even longer," she said. "It's been a centuries-old struggle, and we're still doing it in some ways.

"This is about a struggle since before the beginning of the nation," she added. "Whether this is the end of the struggle or the beginning of other struggles" is not clear, she said.

Brown-Trickey said that in the past she "never had any interest in any inauguration, ever. It didn't seem as if it had anything to do with me." But Obama's election is "very powerful stuff," she said. "We've got a black woman who's going to be first lady. . . . It's fabulous."

She was already planning to attend the inauguration, she said, but "I'd love a better seat."

Carlotta Walls LaNier, another member of the Little Rock Nine, said: "This is such a wonderful, historical event. . . . We've come a long way in 51 years."

The Tuskegee Airmen were made up of the 900 black fighter and bomber pilots who trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from 1942 through 1946. More than 400 served overseas, flying patrol and strafing missions and serving as bomber escorts from bases in North Africa and Italy.

Ground and support crews, also part of the group, were trained at Tuskegee and elsewhere, and all were assigned to exclusively black aviation units that went overseas to fight, despite harsh discrimination.

In a previous interview, retired Lt. Col. Charles McGee of Bethesda summed up what several members of the Tuskegee Airmen said was their goal: "to be measured by our abilities rather than the happenstance of birth."

Accomplishing that, Mann, Broadwater and others said, paved the way for Obama.

"I believe the record shows you don't have to change the standards, you don't have to do something special. You just have to give everybody opportunity," McGee said previously. "If we have the chance, we prove ourselves."

Tuskegee Airman and retired Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer Jr., 89, of New Rochelle, N.Y., said, "This whole thing has given me faith in the young, including the young whites, who seem to have put race aside . . . to vote for the man who will really bring the change that we need.

"I knew it would happen someday," said Archer, who flew 169 combat missions and was the only African American designated an ace during the war. "But I thought it might still be 100 years away."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company