Stephen Pullens, a championship athlete and son of a Minneapolis elementary school principal, is the "cream of black middle-class society," said Minneapolis lawyer George Morrow. "If he can't get into the Air Force Academy, no blacks can."
The fact is, Pullens, 20, did get into the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., after being enthusiastically recruited by the school's staff.
But a week after he started school July 25, 1979, Pullens was discharged.
The reason? Pullens, like 20 percent of the blacks in this country, bears the genetic trait for sickle cell anemia. He does not have sickle cell anemia, but he has potential for getting it.
"The Air Force claims," said Morrow, "that people with the trait may experience special problems with a combination of stress and high altitudes."
Morrow, who is Pullens' attorney, said some doctors believe that if one has the sickle cell trait, the red blood cells may tend to "sickle" or distort in shape if they are deprived of oxygen at elevated altitudes. This may lead to a stroke.
"The key word here is 'may'," said Morrow. "There is no proven relationship between the trait and altitude problems."
In an attempt to be reinstated at the Air Force Academy, Pullens filed a class action suit against the Air Force in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. The class will probably consist of black men who have been discharged from the Air Force Academy for bearing the sickle cell trait.
Morrow, who is also local counsel for the NAACP, said he isn't sure how big the class will be. The academy regulation about the trait constituting grounds for discharge was instituted in 1973, he said, and since then an estimated five blacks a year have been discharged.
Pullens' case has been assigned to Judge Harry MacLaughlin. Court dates have not been set.
Morrow claims that while 20 percent of the black population bears the sickle cell trait, virtually all Mediterranean people, who are white, carry the trait. "This is not an exclusive black problem," he said, "and it's an expression of prejudice that it has been made a black problem."
Morrow said he does not know if all candidates at the academy are tested for sickle cell anemia, but he does know that no white person has ever been discharged for bearing the trait.
The Air Force admits that only a few of the people who carry the trait will have altitude problems, but the service makes no attempt to distinguish between those who probably will and those who probably won't.
Morrow says doctors could culture a candidate's blood cells, subject them to conditions that approximate high altitudes and see if the cells sickle.
The Air Force originally instituted its policy on sickle cell anemia after three black academy students, who had the trait, experienced altitude problems in 1972. Morrow claims it has never been determined whether the problems were definitely related to the sickle cell trait.
Matsotonia Pullens, Stephen's mother, hopes that her son's case can be resolved quickly so that he can continue with his Air Force education. While he waits for the legal wheels to turn, Pullens is attending school at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., studying physics and aerospace engineering.
Mrs. Pullens, the principal of Page and Agassiz schools in Minneapolis, said her son has wanted to attend the Air Force Academy since he was in ninth grade. "This was his goal, his motivation," she said. "He started out saying that he wanted to be an astronaut, but people thought that was childish, so he changed his ambition to becoming a pilot."
Mrs. Pullens said her son was captain of his high school basketball, football and track teams. He was ranked nationally in the high hurdles.
Mrs. Pullens said while Stephen was being recruited, he was never given an indication that carrying the sickle cell trait was a factor in being accepted or discharged from the academy. Before he left for school, she said, an Air Force doctor examined him in Minneapolis and pronounced him "pilot qualified."
It wasn't until he arrived at the academy and was asked to take another blood test that the Air Force told him he could not stay at the school. "He called me from Colorado and told me, 'Mom, guess what? They say I can't attend,'" recalled Mrs. Pullens. "I couldn't understand it."
Mrs. Pullens said her son tried to discover more about why he was being discharged and he began questioning academy officials and asked to see the base legal counsel. School officials became concerned about this, and Pullens was assigned an "escort," or a guard, who trailed him around and made sure he did not leave a certain area.