At the start of every U.S. war from the 1860s to the 1940s, Black Americans debated an important question: Should young Black men volunteer for service in a country marked by such glaring racial inequality? Many young men decided to join up. The hope, widely shared, was that such service would finally open the way to racial progress.
Time and again, Black veterans returned to civilian life during peacetime and rightly sought equitable treatment. But time and again, that hope was frustrated. The violent response by Whites after World War I in enforcing the racial order was especially horrific.
But things began to change after World War II. President Harry Truman desegregated the military. The 1950s began a series of slow but significant gains on the civil rights front.
That important change came about in large part because Black military personnel demonstrated such valor and dedication to country during World War II. One of the most notable examples was the Tuskegee Airmen, who showed that Black pilots were fully as capable as White ones in combatting the Nazi war machine.
Omaha has long had a Tuskegee Airmen connection — the energetic Alfonza W. Davis Chapter. Last week Omaha’s last living link to the Airmen, Robert Holts, died. It’s a moment to appreciate his service and to honor the legacy of Black service personnel who opened the way for national progress.