Stennis celebrates MLK day

Published 4:29 am Sunday, January 20, 2008

A ceremony held at Stennis Space Center’s StenniSphere, hosted by Naval Meteorology and Oceanographic Command, honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

With the StenniSphere filled to capacity Thursday Robert Decatur spoke about his experiences with southern mentality, serving as King’s lawyer and how he and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen finally received a piece of the respect they deserved almost 60 years after their service.

Rear Admiral David Titley gave a short introduction before introducing the guest speaker. Titley spoke about the strength of the nation’s armed forces and how true strength would only be achieved when America’s military represents its population’s diversity.

“Why would you consciously exclude anyone that could help you,” Titley said.

He said King’s message was meant instill equality for all.

Then Titley introduced the Honorable Judge Robert Decatur who took the podium to share his experiences as one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

As far as historical references, there are few but the movie entitled “The Tuskegee Airmen” is a place to start. Decatur said the movie is about 90 percent accurate. In fact a scene where Laurence Fishburne lands in a field and prisoners working the field exclaim, “My God he’s colored,” that was Decatur’s experience.

Decatur was one of the first to arrive at Keesler Airfield in Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training in the Tuskegee Experiment. All participants were handpicked from a list of applicants with a college education. In contrast white pilots only needed a high school diploma.

“Not us, oh no. We had to be college students or college graduates,” Decatur said.

Before arriving at Keesler Decatur had only read about segregation and racial treatment.

“Wasn’t till I came here to Keesler Field that I ran smack into southern mores and conduct,” Decatur said.

Tuskegee Airmen had limited access to areas on base. Entrance to the library was even denied.

“I certainly could not put my little brown body in that pool on the main post,” Decatur said.

The main purpose of the Tuskegee Experiment was to ensure blacks would fail as pilots by putting every obstacle in their path, Decatur said. Those obstacles did not stop the men from becoming the best pilots they could be.

“We were determined to succeed. We were determined because we knew we had a terrible, terrible load on our shoulders. If we did not succeed it would be the end of flight training for black Americans,” Decatur said.

That determination paid off as the Airmen established a number of records and achieved feats never achieved before. In the 1,500 flight missions the group performed over Europe during World War II not a single bomber was lost; a record that will be never be excelled, Decatur said.

The first time a German destroyer was sunk by 50 caliber machine gun fire and the first time a jet plane was shot down by a prop plane were also performed by Tuskegee Airmen, Decatur said. Their feats caused the Airmen to be feared and respected by German forces.

Even after making a name for themselves Tuskegee Airmen had a hard time receiving respect from their fellow countrymen. After retiring from the armed forces former Tuskegee Airmen were unable to get jobs as commercial pilots.

Only later in life did the Airmen receive the respect they deserved. Three times in his life soldiers who were saved as a result of Tuskegee Airmen efforts told him thank you. A recent speech performed by President George Bush involved the president saluting the surviving Tuskegee Airmen.

“It was well deserved and over 60 years late in coming,” Decatur said.

After his time in the armed forces Decatur went on to earn a law degree and work as an attorney; one of his clients was Martin Luther King Jr.

Days before King was assassinated Decatur and King were photographed talking to each other. Two days after King’s assassination Decatur received an envelope containing pictures the reporter took.

“I often think of my friend Martin Luther King,” Decatur said. “I keep those pictures with me all the time.”

Decatur’s law career lead him to serve as a judge for 25 years where he presided over more than 10,000 cases, according to information provided at the event.

In a separate event a Martin Luther King Jr. march will take place in Picayune beginning at the Head Start facility on Rosa Street. The march will begin at 10 a.m.