Fresh off segregated trains, rows of black male college graduates from across the country gathered at an experimental Air Force training camp in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941. They were there for a program that would test whether African Americans had the mettle to be combat pilots in World War II.
In "The Tuskegee Airmen," HBO's dramatization of the event, a white officer stands close enough to one of the recruits to brush eyelashes and demands to know why he joined the program.
"To serve my country, sir," the recruit replies.
"Your country? Boy, are you stupid? . . . Don't you know how bad we treat you people? Serving your country. It ain't your country."
In law and practice, the officer was right.
Nonetheless, 33 of the recruits that trained at the black college now known as Tuskegee University went on to earn the privilege of fighting for the country that denied them decent housing, bus seats and integrated schools.
The country's social injustices did not keep them from claiming the United States as their own, says Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee-trained pilot from the 332nd fighter group in 1942.
"Some of those things espoused in that same time, go back to Africa or a separateness, was not a thought," explains McGee, who will speak Sunday at the College Park Airport Museum.
The program, which drew much criticism, eventually graduated more than 900 pilots and thousands of other workers to support combat missions that contributed to victory in Europe. Those successes went far beyond proving the race's military prowess. They helped to plant the seeds of subversion.
After the airmen and other black World War II officers battled for their country in Europe and were treated as first-class citizens overseas, they brought back more than a few medals of valor. They also brought back an attitude, an intolerance for bad treatment that historians say contributed to the birth of the civil rights movement.
"We were born here; we're American. America has got to change," McGee recalls thinking.
McGee is seated at the Arlington offices of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a nonprofit group incorporated in 1974 and dedicated to raising scholarship money and educating the public about the black officers' accomplishments.
McGee, 79, who lives in Bethesda and serves as the group's national president, is dressed comfortably in jeans and a sweat shirt. His face is honey-colored and smooth behind steel-framed spectacles. His head of silver waves is parted at the side and standing in military order.
Immediately after the war, the officers received little recognition, McGee explains. This lack of recognition and his struggle to raise a family made McGee more resolute about carrying himself with dignity.
"The philosophy was to seek that respect based on how you present yourself," McGee says, his spine stiffening in his chair. "Walk tall, keep your shoulders back, keep your head up."
Maintaining decorum under pressure was a lesson that McGee learned early. His great-grandfather was a slave and minister who fought in the Civil War. His mother died when he was a toddler, and his father, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, professor and social worker, supported the family, moving McGee and his two siblings all over the Midwest, from their birthplace in Cleveland to parts of Illinois and Iowa.
After graduating from Chicago's DuSable High School, McGee worked for a year with the Civilian Conservation Corps to make money to enroll in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1940. He studied engineering there for two years, pledged Alpha Phi Alpha and the National Society of the Pershing Rifles fraternities. He also met his wife, Frances, whom he married in 1942.
As World War II got underway, the draft card that arrived at McGee's mailbox sent him into a mild panic. Because he was a part of the ROTC, he knew what would be in store for him if he were called to the draft.
"I knew what the foot soldiers had to face, so I said something had to be better," he says with a laugh.
Never having been around airplanes, he applied for the new pilot's training program for blacks in Tuskegee. In 1942, he was admitted to the program and headed south.
After completing the program, McGee piloted his way through several successful missions in Italy during World War II. He went on to have a distinguished 30-year career of flying on active duty, rising to the rank of command pilot and serving in Korea and Vietnam.
When he retired highly decorated in 1973 from active duty, McGee had flown 409 missions. During a 1994 Tuskegee Airmen Inc. convention in Atlanta, keynote speaker Gen. Ronald Fogleman, then Air Force chief of staff, cited McGee for holding the record for flying the highest number of fighter missions over three wars.
Along the way, McGee had three children and finished a degree in business. His civilian career included a stint in real estate and managing an airport in Kansas City, Mo.
Since retiring in 1982, he has devoted himself to community interests, working for the Boy Scouts and his fraternity--and sharing his experiences with audiences. This year, one of his two daughters, Charlene E. McGee Smith, published a book about him, "Tuskegee Airman: The Biography of Charles E. McGee."
A quarter century after McGee retired his wings, a brilliant energy lights up in his eyes when he talks about the joys of soaring into the sky, far above the turmoil below.
"Once you get in the air and as the old saying goes, you loop, roll and spin, it's a new environment. . . . To be able to sit up at 40,000 feet and look at the stars above you, or watch the sun take off at sunset, it makes you realize that we are a small speck in a very marvelous and great universe."
Col. Charles E. McGee speaks at 2 p.m. Sunday at the College Park Aviation Museum, 1985 Cpl. Frank Scott Dr., College Park. Admission is adults $4, seniors and groups $3, children $2. For more information, call 301-864-6029.
CAPTION: Col. Charles E. McGee, a Tuskegee-trained pilot, speaks Sunday at the College Park Aviation Museum.