Review: Pride and prejudice of the American South

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The Independent Culture
BENJAMIN O Davis, only the second black cadet to attend West Point, must have been a man of remarkable fortitude. Billeted alone, trained alone and left alone, he endured almost four years as an invisible man. On Sundays, when cadets weren't allocated places in the mess, he had to observe his own humiliating ritual, walking from table to table in the vast dining hall, asking the senior cadet for permission to sit down. At table after table he would be turned away. 'Nightfighters' (ITV), Network First's moving documentary about America's first black pilots, was full of such stories, accounts of extraordinary men fighting to lead ordinary lives.

Charles Alfred Anderson was another, an 86-year-old who still flies daily and has lived long enough to see a road named after him in the redneck town of Tuskeegee, Alabama. When he first asked for flying lessons he was told that 'we don't take coloured people up'. So he scraped together the money to buy a second-hand plane and taught himself (civil aviation regulations were clearly more broad-minded in those pioneering days). When Eleanor Roosevelt visited his airfield she gamely insisted that he take her up for a spin, having been told by her advisors that black people couldn't fly. He still believes that it was her intervention with the President that lead to the establishment of the Tuskeegee Experiment, a training programme set up to determine whether blacks would make good fighter pilots.

This was a question expecting the answer no. In a secret study on the use of 'negro manpower in war' the National War College had declared among other pseudo-scientific bigotries, that 'the negro is a rank coward in the dark'. The report officially closed the door to black participation in the war at any level besides that of menial labourer. Forced to establish the Tuskeegee programme by political pressure, the army had no particular desire for it to succeed. Entry requirements were far higher than for whites, and no opportunity was missed to flunk the students.

When they were eventually allowed into combat, after endless prevarication and false reports of their cowardice, they rapidly established themselves as the finest fighter escort squadron available (under the command of Benjamin Davis). They ended the war able to boast that they never lost a single bomber to enemy fighters, a claim no other squadron could match.

There were some honourable exceptions to the depressing parade of white ignorance and injustice. The base commander in Tuskeegee, a Southern white steeped in the prejudices of the time, recognised the men's talents and fought for their right to defend the society that treated them with such contempt. But when they returned it was to find that segregation started at the bottom of the gang- plank. German prisoners of war had more privileges in Southern bases than black airmen decorated for valour. This was a bitter story - the hurt was still alive in these distinguished, elderly men - and it was well told by Jeremy Bugler in a film alert to the powerful metaphors of ascent and flight and the desire to climb. In terms of quality, Carlton has been running a ferocious overdraft for months; this went some way to redress the balance.

In a sense, 40 Minutes (BBC 2) was also about attempts to break through a barrier of segregation - in this case that between civvies and Army regulars. Ian Levison had the good idea to look at how defence cuts affected four individuals of various ranks, though he wasn't entirely rewarded with good material - as you might have predicted, Major Charles Blackmore fared rather better than Corporal Lois Burgoo, a black athletics instructor for the Parachute Regiment.

I don't want to be unfair to Major Blackmore, who struck me as impressively determined, but where exactly do you draw the line between initiative and privilege in his remark about how he got his job at a merchant bank: 'When I first applied I was told that the list was closed but I went through a different door and made sure I got on to that list.'