In some alternate version of history, Dwight was the first black man to walk on the moon.
But that’s not the case in our reality.
Thanks to Chuck Yeager.
In Yeager: An Autobiography by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, we get an inside glimpse at one of the most amazing moments in American history.
A time a lone white man dared tell the entire establishment – pushing their black avatar – “no.”
The year is 1962.
The first class of pilots selected to undergo astronaut training (this was after the astronauts had been selected for the Mercury team) was assembled and prepared to train at Edwards Air Force Base. Only problem… it was all-white:
From the moment we picked our first class, I was caught in a buzz saw of controversy involving a black student. The White House, Congress, and civil rights groups came at me with meat cleavers, and the only way I could save my head was to prove I was a damned bigot.
In late 1961, we were ready to start screening applications for our first class at the space school, and because they would be the first bunch, the screening process was particularly thorough. We wanted only the very best pilots, and our first couple of classes consisted of experienced military test pilots, who had graduated from Edward’s test pilot school, and whose abilities and academic background were demonstrably outstanding. Our space course was six months of intensive classroom work and flight training. My staff at Edwards culled the applications, pulled out the most promising student candidates, conducted preliminary checks of their records, and forwarded their recommendations to a selection committee at the Pentagon, which carefully reviewed the background of each applicant, conducted personal interviews, sought evaluations from their superiors, and further winnowed the list.
I was a member of the final selection committee, and after several months of interviewing and tough deciding, we published our list of the first eleven students. Actually, we had 26 names in order of preference, but we didn’t publish our list that way: we just named 11 guys alphabetically as the members of our first class, and listed the first three or four alternates, in case any of them dropped out.
The quality of those selected was such that they added tremendously to the prestige of our new school, which was our intention all along. I was thrilled with the choices. But when our list was published I received a phone call from the Chief of Staff’s office asking whether any of the first 11 were black pilots. I said, no. Only one black pilot had applied for the course and he was number 26 on the list. I was informed that the White House wanted a black pilot in the space course.
The Chief of Staff was Gen. Curtis LeMay, probably the most controversial personality in the Air Force, since his days as the tough, cigar-chewing head of SAC. I knew him pretty well. General LeMay wasn’t what I would call a smoothie. He was blunt: you didn’t have to read between the lines dealing with him.
He got on the phone and said, “Bobby Kennedy wants a colored in space. Get one into your course.” I said, “Well, General, it’s gonna be difficult. We have one applicant, a captain named Dwight, who came out number 26. We already published our list with the 15 who made it, and it’s going to be embarrassing to republish the list with Dwight’s name on it because now everyone knows who the first 15 are.” He said: “Okay, I’ll just tell them they’re too late for this first class.” But a 150-millimeter shell came ripping in from the White House, and LeMay was told: “By God, you will have a black pilot in that program – now !” He called me back: “Do what you have to do, Yeager, but get that colored guy in.” I said, “Okay, general, but what I think we ought to do is take at least 15 students in the first class, instead of 11, and make him number 15. Give me a little more money and I can handle this many in the school.”
He agreed, and we brought Dwight in. Ed Dwight was an average pilot with an average academic background. He wasn’t a bad pilot, but he wasn’t exceptionally talented, either. Flying with a good bunch in a squadron, he would probably get by. But he just couldn’t compete in the space course against the best of the crop of experienced military test pilots. In those days, there were still comparatively few black pilots in the Air Force, but Dwight sure as hell didn’t represent the top of the talent pool. I had flown with outstanding pilots like Emmett Hatch and Eddie Lavelle; but unfortunately, guys of their quality didn’t apply for the course. Dwight did. So we brought him in, set up a special tutoring program to get him through the academics because, as I recall, he lacked the engineering academics that all the other students had.
Hell, I felt for Dwight, remembering my own academic problems in test pilot’s school. It’s really a rough situation, and he didn’t have a Jack Ridley working with him – a genius in explaining the most complicated problems in understandable language. He worked hard, and so did his tutors, but he just couldn’t hack it. And he didn’t keep up in flying. I worked with him on that, and so did other instructors; but our students were flying at levels of proficiency that were really beyond his experience. The only prejudice against Dwight was a conviction shared by all the instructors that he was not qualified to be in the school.
So we had a problem. General LeMay had asked me to keep him informed about Dwight’s progress and knew what was happening at Edwards. About halfway through the course, I flew to Washington to attend an Air Force banquet and was seated next to General LeMay. He asked me if there was any improvement with Dwight. I said, “No sir. We’re having a lot of trouble just trying to keep him from getting so far behind the others that it will be hopeless. He’s just not hacking it.” The general grunted. The he looked me in the eye and said, “Chuck, if you want to wash out Dwight, I’ll back you all the way.” I about fell out of my chair.
But it didn’t come to that. Dwight hung on and squeezed through. He got his diploma qualifying him to be the nation’s first black astronaut, but NASA did not select him and a few powerful supporters in Washington demanded to know why. The finger of blame was pointed at the school and I was hauled on the carpet to answer charges of racism raised by Dwight and some of his friends.
All hell broke loose. A few black congressmen announced they would launch an investigation of the incident, and the Air Force counselor, their chief lawyer, flew to Edwards from the Pentagon to personally take charge of the case. Man, I was hot. I told that lawyer, “You do not have a case of discrimination here. The White House discriminated by forcing us to take an unqualified guy. And we would have discriminated by passing him because he was black.” Maybe “discrimination” was the wrong word, but I made my point. Anyway, the decision was made to fly in a group of black civil rights attorneys and a few congressmen and show them Dwight’s school records.
I met with them. I said, “I’m the commandant of this school, but the truth is that I lack the college education to qualify as a NASA astronaut. It so happens, I couldn’t care less. But if I did care a lot, there isn’t a damned thing I could do about it because the regulations say I must have a college degree. Captain Dwight may care a lot about getting a diploma from this school, but the fact is he lacks the academic background and the flying skill to do it. Anyone with his grades deserved to be washed out, or it would be discrimination in reverse. Now, here are his complete school records from day one. Let’s review them page by page.”
The group had no idea that he had received special tutoring and was shocked to see his poor grades; they were satisfied that prejudice was in no way involved in this case. But that wasn’t quite the end of it. I was so damned mad that I told the Air Force lawyer, “Hey, I want to file some charges of my own. I’m a full colonel and he’s a captain, and I want to charge with insubordination. If he brought charges against me and couldn’t make them stick, I want that guy court-martialed.” I was told, no way; the Air Force would not allow that to happen because they taken enough heat over this matter already.
I was disgusted. I knew damned well that Dwight had taken a cheap shot at my West Virginia accent to try to save face. Hell, if I had been from Philadelphia or New York, he wouldn’t have even tried. He was prejudiced against me, figuring that anyone from my part of the world was a redneck bigot. Many Southern whites who are honest will admit having problems about race in a general sense, but I didn’t have to be the type who thought of all blacks as niggers to flunk Ed Dwight. And what really hurt was that the guy called into question not only my professional integrity, but also my most basic loyalty to the Air Force, which had allowed me to climb as high as my talents would take me. Ignoring the fact that I was a raw kid, often made fun of as a hillbilly, they gave me a chance to crawl in the cockpit of an expensive airplane and prove that I had what it took to fly that thing. I knew prejudice. I ran up against officers who looked down theirs noses at my ways and accent and pegged me as a dumb, down-home squirrel-shooter. But, damn it, the Air Force as an institution never let me down for an instant. In spite of where I came from or what I lacked, they trained me and gave me every opportunity to prove myself.
Nowadays, it has become fashionable for some companies to advertise themselves as “equal opportunity employers.” The Air Force practiced that with me right from the start, and I would never deny to anybody else the chance to prove his worth, no matter who or what he is. There never were black pilots or white pilots in the Air Force. There were only pilots who knew how to fly, and pilots who didn’t. (p. 342-347)
There still aren’t that many black pilots in the United States Air Force or United States Navy.
Knowing that Capt. Ed Dwight came in 26 out of 26 applicants (before his blackness helped him get in the astronaut training program), well, this simple fact should punctuate why the story of the Tuskegee Airmen is truly a celebration of segregation.
Had those black pilots who trained in Tuskegee, Alabama been forced to compete with white fighter pilots, well, they’d likely have come in last just as Capt. Dwight did.
The history of America post-World War II is nothing more than a never-ending quest to uplift black people by any means possible.
In the process, whereever black people have been uplifted, that portion of society (be it government, academia, entertainment, sports, or a neighborhood/community) has regressed to the black mean.
It’s fitting that one man, Chuck Yeager, broke the back off those pushing for the first black astronaut.
Not only did he break the sound barrier, but he broke the power of those pushing Black-Run America (BRA) by simply saying “no.”
Talk about the right stuff .