“Red Tails,” George Lukas’s action movie celebrates the path-breaking Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American fighter pilots who earned distinction in the European Theater of World War II. That they served in a segregated unit of a segregated army made their success bittersweet. In that respect, however, the airmen were one group out of many: black soldiers going to the front lines for a country that put them at the back of the job lines.
What is perhaps even less known than the Airmen’s story is how well the military served – and still serves – the nation’s black servicemen. Recent studies show that the army is an unusually open route to success for African Americans; it has been a source of material, social, and psychological liberation. The experience of blacks in the army also helps shed light on the struggles of African Americans in civilian life.