SARASOTA, Fla. (WTSP) – Few people are more qualified to speak on the intersection of patriotism and racism than the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who broke the color barrier as the first black pilots in the military during World War II.
Lt. Col. George Hardy of Sarasota is no exception. The 92-year-old retired Tuskegee Airman fought to bring down Nazi Germany in WWII, only to return to a country that recognized him only as a second-class citizen.
“Segregation ruled everything,” said Hardy. “The services were rigidly segregated, just like in the South.”
Hardy says when he enlisted in the military, he didn’t consider himself a pioneer for the Civil Rights movement. That realization came later. He just wanted to serve.
“We decided we wanted to fly, and nothing stood in the way of that for those of us that wanted to fly.”
Hardy was part of an elite group. Roughly 1,000 pilots graduated from Tuskegee; less than half were deployed overseas. Today, just 16-17 of the pilots who saw combat are alive.
Lt. Col. George Hardy is one of them.
“Until Tuskegee Airmen started, the word in the military was that blacks can’t fly, and we wanted to prove that we could, and we did,” he said.
The airmen shattered the racist theories published in the 1925 Army War College report called "The Employment of Negro Manpower in War." That report was used to deny African Americans the right to serve in the armed forces by making declarations such as blacks being inferior to whites because of smaller brains.
So what made Hardy decide to fight for a country that did not believe he had the brainpower or stamina to serve?
For Hardy, the answer was simple.
“It was our country, too. It’s the only country we knew. It was our country, and we felt we had the right to fight,” he said. “If you don’t fight for this country, what claim do you have?”
But even though Airmen like Hardy fought for freedom abroad, Jim Crow was waiting at home. The double-standard inspired what was called the “Double ‘V’ Campaign, started by a black newspaper in Pittsburgh.
“Victory overseas and victory back home,” said Hardy. “We had victory in Europe, but when you went back down South, blacks still sat in the back of the bus.”
So, for black veterans, specifically Tuskegee Airmen, being patriotic while also criticizing the shortcomings of the country are nothing new.
“Over here, there seems to be an extra bit of hatred towards back people,” said Hardy. “Police brutality. They just go out of their way to treat black people differently…they’ve been excessive as far as police are concerned, and juries don’t find them guilty.”
Police brutality was the catalyst of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest by way of taking a knee on the field during the national anthem.
While Hardy has strong opinions against police brutality, he was initially unsure about their way of calling attention to the issue.
“I don’t like that approach. And I don’t like it because I fought for this country in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I lost a number of friends during those periods, and I always thought something special about the National Anthem and the flag,” he said.
“However, once the president got involved, then I had sympathy for them because I think he should not have been involved at all,” Hardy said. “These people are protesting [and] they have a right to protest.”
It’s a freedom Hardy says he fought for.
“The country means everything to me,” he said. “We proved that black people can do anything white people can do, and do it just as well.”