Turns out the video is not really about the plane. The whole context of the story is the brave service of the Tuskegee Airmen. And the whole context of that story is our American history of racism.
In our history, African-Americans have been found suitable for service in the lower ranks of our military, but have been excluded from full participation. During World War II, the military was still fully segregated, and the video mentions official military documents describing how "Negroes" could and could not serve, due to supposed racial limitations. Eventually, enough factors came together that some units were created to train African-American pilots and crew. The 332nd trained in Tuskegee, Alabama - and the training dragged on and on, as leaders were reluctant to actually put them into service. The video gives a lot of credit to this widely circulated photograph of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt taking a ride in a training plane with one of the Tuskegee Airmen:
Funding and support increased after that, to the point where the 332nd was finally deployed, serving in North Africa and throughout Europe. The unit served admirably, escorting bombers, protecting the lives and earning the respect of white crews, with whom they would not have been allowed to bunk. The video includes an interview with an 85-year-old former bomber crew member, who credits the "Red-Tail Angels" (named after the distinctive red paint on the rear of their planes) for his long life complete with retirement, old age, and grandkids.
Most of the Red Tail Reborn video is about the process of finding, salvaging, restoring, and returning to flight one of the P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. The video was released in 2007, following the engine failure and crash of the plane after its first successful renovation in 2004. It ends with the unfinished story of the plane being repaired and restored again, hoping for a future flight.
The timing of watching this video is meaningful. Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was also a planned white nationalist rally called "Unite the Right," where a number of "alt-right" and other groups promoting "white supremacy" came together to challenge the removal of a Confederate war monument and argue for the need to "take back our country."
As I watched the video, its 2007 tone was hopeful and positive, with several references to "the way things used to be" and "America's past." On the same day I watched it, ten years later, my phone kept notifying me of racism alive and well, causing fresh violence and divisiveness. Our president delayed any criticism of the rally until well into the afternoon, after damage had already been done. Rally organizers responded that he shouldn't have been critical, as they were the people who put him into office. The president's first seven months in office have seen a ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries, unprecedented deportation of Latin American immigrants who have had jobs and families and homes and productive lives in America for decades, new threats to voting rights and affirmative action and public schools, an announcement that transgender people would no longer be welcome in the military, proposed new cuts to legal immigration, a turn back to the fruitless and racially biased drug wars of 30 years ago, and much, much more.
Racism is not just our past. It is still very much our present reality.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is inspiring. In their service, these men showed themselves, their country, and the world that skin color and ethnic origin were useless as ways of categorizing what someone can and can't do. Their patience, dedication, professionalism, and commitment really did overcome a level of ignorance, fear, racism, and discrimination. One of the airmen interviewed in Red Tail Reborn spoke about how the sharing of their story was helping to "transform our society."
Like the Mustang in the video, that transformation was lost in mothballs for a while. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen took a long time to be fully told.
Then, like the team of people who restored the Mustang, working together as both black and white, military and civilian, from all different backgrounds and parts of the country, the story was reborn. It flew again. There was a time when "hope" held the day, and progress really was made.
Like the day of the engine failure and crash, today under the Trump administration and its anemic vision of what American "greatness" means, we're in a tragic moment of violence and destruction. The story of racial reconciliation, of teamwork and community and education and trust overcoming racism has taken a dive.
As I said earlier, Red Tail Reborn ends with an uncertain future. The crash damaged the plane badly, also killing the man flying it, who was instrumental in its restoration and publicity. More expense and time would be needed to repair it. The work of many people, of all skin colors, from all over the country and the world, would be needed to make it fly again.
But I peeked, ten years later, at the rest of the story. The Red Tail P-51 Mustang is flying again. It's painted with the colors and insignia of several of the Tuskegee Airmen units. Its name is "Tuskegee Airmen," and its purpose is to keep their story alive, and keep inspiring people. In fact, in September, it will be near where I live in Northeastern Ohio, and I intend to go to the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton and see it fly.
The plane also bears the words "By Request" under the side windows. That was the name of the plane flown by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commanding officer of the 332nd. It means that the Tuskegee Airmen, held back and kept in extra training so long due to racism, gained a reputation for excellence and skill, to the point that bomber crews would request them as their escort specifically.
America still needs the Tuskegee Airmen. We need people of all colors, backgrounds, and nationalities. We need people of courage and determination, who will overcome racism and ignorance and discrimination of all forms. We need to be shown, again and again, that character is what matters.
We need to mourn this moment when the progress of racial reconciliation has crashed and burned. And then we need to get to work on making it fly again. It will happen. It's too important not to.
What will be your part in the story?
Dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen, to the Commemorative Air Force and all who have kept the story alive, especially Don Hinz and his family, to the other filmmakers and storytellers, and to all the people young and old who are inspired by the story.
Offered as a prayer for each individual person and each organization who commit themselves to the ongoing work of racial reconciliation, justice, and peace.
All images in this post are links to photos at http://www.redtail.org/.
For more information, watch the videos:
Red Tail Reborn
Flight of the Red Tail (the sequel to Red Tail Reborn)
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995 dramatization of the story)
And read about and support the Red Tail restoration and history sharing project:
See the Red Tail fly in September 2017 at the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio:
There's also a web site dedicated to the service and memory of the Tuskegee Airmen: