The Freeman Field Acts of Intelligent Disobedience

This week I attended a presentation about the famed “Tuskegee Airmen” – the unit of African American pilots that was established during WW II when many parts of the United States officially practiced segregation of blacks from whites. I learned of an example of Intelligent Disobedience that is acknowledged as a forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement and its many acts of Civil Disobedience.

While the US military became one of the first major institutions to desegregate, in the WW II era it was still a segregated system with blacks often being relegated to menial positions and socialization between the races very limited. At the same time, there was a regulation on the rule books (AR-210-10) that made it clear that officers at any base were entitled to the use of the officer’s club house. Certified pilots enjoyed officer rank, but in a number of military bases black pilots were denied entry to the officer’s club.

When the legality of this was questioned (ironically, at an airbase named Freeman Field) in southern Indiana, the white commander, Colonel Selway, used a subterfuge in an attempt to maintain the segregated status quo. He designated the black officers as “trainees” and the white officers as “instructors” and separated them into different club houses. The black airmen organized and sent groups of black officers into the white club house with AR-210-10 as their basis. When they refused to desist, Col. Selway ordered them to be arrested “in quarters”. Over a two-day period, 61 black officers were arrested.

The story played out further over a period of several weeks with further extra-legal maneuvers on the part of Selway to intimidate the black officers into compliance. The matter rose to the level of the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, who ordered a review, which immediately exonerated the black officers (with one exception that made its way through further bureaucratic processes before eventual exoneration).

I draw attention to this story as a case in which Intelligent Disobedience also became Civil Disobedience. The actions of the black aviators upheld an existing regulation (A-210-10) that was being violated by the segregationist Colonel Segway. It is typical of Intelligent Disobedience to act within the existing legal structure against an illegal or harmful order. This was clearly such an example.

Intelligent Disobedience in some instances goes on to become Civil Disobedience by willingly incurring arrest to draw attention to conditions that must be changed. Because of the intransigence of Colonel Selway, that is what occurred in the Freeman Field incident. Fortunately, in this case, justice at least of a narrow sort prevailed quickly, though it would take decades to achieve the underlying legal victories required to broadly overturn segregationist laws.

The process continues to this day of transforming even deeper de facto cultural segregation. Exhuming and remembering historical events that contributed to what Martin Luther King Jr called “the long arc of justice” strengthen our resolve to persevere.


The Freeman Field acts of intelligent disobedience
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