Famed Tuskegee Airman Charles Flowers, who died last week, age 92, blessed the name of Eleanor Roosevelt. He was a member of the "Tuskegee Experiment" ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, to determine if Negroes could develop a flying unit under the command of Capt. Benjamin O. Davis.
Within a year, the program was on the Congressional chopping block, with Southern legislators ranting that Negroes did not have the intelligence to learn to fly, and the experiment was a waste of government funds.
That's when the first lady visited Tuskegee to praise its efforts. She asked Charles "Chief" Anderson to take her for a flight around the area in a Piper Cub, despite protests from Secret Service Agents.
Photos of the first lady squeezed into the back seat of the bright yellow Cub with a smiling black pilot at the controls up front made the pages of newspapers across the nation.
While her visit to Alabama did not deter segregationists from tormenting Capt. Davis and unfairly criticizing the program, it did generate favorable press for the first time and encouraged the experiment's supporters to redouble their efforts. Eventually, the Tuskegee Airmen succeeded beyond their own best expectations.
Yet, despite heroic success in combat missions out of Tunisia and Sicily, sometimes flying five sorties in a single day, white commanders found fault with their operation. And despite their commissions and wings proudly earned, Tuskegee Airmen fought a second battle on the ground, excluded from Officer's Clubs and as strictly segregated as any other Army unit during World War II.
They became known as the "Red Tails," hailed as superior fighter escorts for lumbering bombers headed for targets in Italy and Germany. But when they returned to the United States, their hard-won ribbons and outstanding airmanship earned them a seat in the back of the bus and continued second class citizenship.
President Truman desegregated military services long after their time. But this band of brothers, fast friends for life, rejoiced together when civil rights became the law and schools and hospitals were desegregated in the 1960s. Fewer in number as the years go by, the Tuskegee Airmen proudly wear their red blazers at annual dinners and conferences. They stood in silent appreciation at the Air and Space Museum in the 1990s when their remarkable achievements were belatedly featured in a pictorial display. Members have continued to find joy and comfort in the enduring friendships they melded in the skies over Europe.
The Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale is in mourning this week. Mr. Flowers delighted in interacting with students in the school that bears his name. He was a living history book, a man students and faculty admired and wanted to emulate. And he often told the story of Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to the Tuskegee Institute.
He taught by his presence that the most severe challenges and injustices can be overcome.