Going Beyond What Seems Possible
This transcript was drawn from an interview with Dr. Arthur Hicks conducted by students in the oral history class of Dunn Middle School in 2004. Dr. Hicks grew up in the segregated South, served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, and has worked as an educator and human rights advocate. But that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. His life has been about working for change and transcending limits. In 2009, just a few years after this interview, he went to Washington D.C. to attend the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. (“What a day that was!” he told me later. “You cannot imagine how it felt to be there.”) It’s hard not to be inspired by this kind, spirited, and dignified man.
My full name is Arthur Norris Hicks and I was born in Sparta, Georgia on November 21, 1922. That’s a few years before you were born!
I intended to live a long time so I took care of myself and didn’t do those things that would have a negative effect. I’ve been careful to do things with moderation as opposed to going to extremes … although there are people who would say that my actions with regard to social events are extreme. I’m a person who works for change.
I grew up in a very segregated area of the South. This segregation was based on hatred, and I mean absolute hatred. You ever hear the term “lynching”? It’s the execution of a person, usually by hanging, without a hearing, without a courtroom, nothing to determine whether or not the person was guilty or not. That’s the kind of condition that existed. And there were other more social types of segregation or discrimination: the back of the bus, the separate drinking fountains, separate waiting rooms in train stations, separate seats in trains. If you went to a store to try on shoes, you had to first buy special socks to put on, or if you wanted to try on a hat, you had to wear some sort of cap over your hair, and in many places, they wouldn’t even accept that. Schools were segregated. The materials and equipment in the black school were books and materials that had been discarded by the administration of the white schools, so the education was of course inferior.
Even as kids, we understood. We understood quite well. And in case we didn’t, they frequently reminded us by throwing rocks through our windows and driving through the neighborhood yelling, “Niggers, move out!” So, yes, we were frequently reminded and we were very conscious of it.
How did we feel as a result of it? Angry. But there was nothing to do. It was anger that had to be subdued. We were continually reminded that we lived under conditions that were not acceptable, but there was nothing we could do about it. So maybe you can imagine how one felt, the constant frustration one might feel. And it isn’t all of us who withheld action all the time. Some of us broke out and we did things to express our disgust for these types of conditions.
In order to go to the grocery store, we had to walk through a border with the white neighborhood, and on occasion a gang of ruffians would confront us and we had to run. But one day I out-ran most and then intentionally allowed the person who was closest to me to catch up. That’s one time when I expressed my anger. I beat him up.
And this was the type of thing one had to do in order to survive, to retain one’s mentality.
There were nine of us in my family: four boys and five girls, so I was a pretty socialized person. I had to learn to get along ’cause I was right in the middle. I always had somebody up here who could handle me and somebody down below that I had to take care of.
People frequently ask me what is meant by Tuskegee Airmen. What makes the Tuskegee Airmen story a significant story? The Tuskegee Airmen are a group of people who became pilots during World War II. Well, lots of people became pilots during World War II. What’s so significant about that? Well, in the military, all the pilots were white, and for the most part there were no Mexicans, and no other minorities, and as such, the armed services were very segregated with respect to aviation. This was even supported by a body of so-called scientific data that said that blacks were incapable of learning complex material, incapable of flying a plane, incapable of carrying out military missions.
But in World War II the nation was hurting for pilots and other technical types of skills. This was an opportunity for the black press and black organizations to convince the War Department and the President to open up these opportunities for black men. (It would have been a good opportunity for women, too, but women were generally not considered in that context at the time.)
Well, Eleanor Roosevelt was a very forward-thinking First Lady. There was a training program for black people to become pilots down in Tuskegee, Alabama, associated with a school founded by Booker T. Washington. Have you heard of him? He was an educator who founded a school that trained black men and women to do different types of skills. Many of them were menial, but at least they were structured and they taught people to be responsible and accomplished.
Anyway, there was a pilot training program at this school in the late 1930s. In 1939, the British were under attack by the Germans and there was a great need for pilots. In fact, some blacks did go overseas by way of Canada and participated in the war before the United States got into the fight.
Well, Mrs. Roosevelt used to travel around the country looking at programs and conditions and making recommendations to the President and to Congress. In 1941, she went down to Tuskegee on one of her tours. She had been informed of this flying program that had been created after pressure had been put on Washington by the “Negro press’, and she became very interested. So when she visited Tuskegee, she said, “I want to ride with one of those people.” The secret service almost fell apart. This wife of the President is going to get into a plane flown by a black pilot! It was unheard of at the time. And after they complained for awhile and stamped their feet on the ground, she simply told them, “I’m gonna ride in that plane.”
Chief Anderson, an icon held in high regard by all of us, was the pilot, and he gave Mrs. Roosevelt an orientation ride around the area. She came back and said, “Well, he flies all right as far as I’m concerned.” And sure enough, the program became the beginning of a permanent practice in the military. In World War II our skills were such that in escorting bombers deep into Germany, we never lost a single bomber while they were under our escort.
In fact, I recently heard a talk by retired Colonel Pete Knight, who holds a world speed record for aircraft he flew out of Edwards Air Force Base back in the experimental days. He spoke at Vandenberg recently in celebration of the 100th anniversary of flight. He described the Tuskegee Airmen as heroes of aviation because it was thought that they could not fly and yet they went on to establish a record in the air force that has not been bested.
But many black men came back after serving their country only to be refused service at the lunch counters in their hometown. Absolutely. That type of experience continued for an additional fifteen or twenty years. Troops came back in 1945 and it was not until the mid-sixties that laws were passed prohibiting discrimination in public activities, particularly those facilities founded under state or federal laws, like schools.
I was in the military for the most part, so I could not publicly demonstrate, but there was discrimination even on the bases. As an example, when the armed forces were desegregated, meaning there was equal access to jobs and housing, that sort of thing, I was transferred to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. At the Tuskegee base it was all black, and under the control of black commanders, so it was a separate society, a separate entity that offered certain opportunities for skill development and accomplishment. But we were small and self-contained, so there were relatively few positions. Meanwhile, there was a larger pool of people out there competing for opportunities that could not exist within a small group. So when President Truman as Commander in Chief abolished segregation of the military bases, a larger pool of possibility opened up to blacks.
But when I was transferred to Tennessee, I discovered that blacks were kept in one corner of the base. We would go to work in an integrated environment, and then we went home, we were in a segregated environment. When it came to utilizing the social facilities: swimming pool, barber shop, chapel, whatever, it was for the most part a segregated environment. Blacks could only use the swimming pool on Wednesday. On Wednesday night at closing time, the pool was emptied, scrubbed down, and refilled, and blacks couldn’t go into it again until next Wednesday. This is the kind of thing that existed.
So I complained about that to the base commander.
Well, I was not a very well liked person after that, but these kinds of things existed, and it was necessary to speak out. Even in the 1960s, when I first got to Vandenberg, there were undesirable conditions for blacks. In fact, one of the persons I associated with became very vocal about it, and the base commander had him transferred to a psychological ward in Texas. He was there for several days and since no one was able to find anything wrong with him he was allowed to come back to Vandenberg. There were other instances of segregation and discrimination, and I was very vocal about these things.
One time I was down in Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and a friend and I were going to Washington and we were looking for a ride as passengers in one of the planes that frequently went back and forth. We had to stay overnight at Maxwell and we went to the billeting office and we asked for a room. We were told we’d have to go across the runway to the area where the black troops were.
I was about 120 pounds at the time, a brand new second lieutenant, a couple of inches shorter than I am now if you can imagine anybody being that short. The manager says, “Sorry, we can’t give you a room here.” And being a brand new second lieutenant I thought I had all sorts of authority, so I wanted to talk to his boss. “Who’s your boss?” I asked him. He called his boss … and it was a colonel! You know what a colonel is? He’s a person who wears eagles on his shoulder! He’s one step below general! So this colonel came in and said, “What’s your problem?” I told him, “We don’t see why we have to go across that runway and have billeting with the black troops. ” Well, he stamped his feet and walked around in circles a bit, and then he went back to the manager: “Give these people rooms.”
But I think they had their retribution. When I left the service as a pilot in 1946, I was never recalled as a pilot. I think they sent my name and serial number to Washington, to the personnel division, with instructions never to recall this person to commissioned status — he’s an absolute troublemaker.
I decided to come back to the service as a maintenance supervisor and I remained in until 1971. I stayed in for 28 years. And what did I do in those 28 years? I worked on the B17s, the B47s, the B25s. Do any of those mean anything to you? They’re planes. At Vandenberg I was the missile guidance superintendent, taking care of the guided system for the Titan II, which was a very big missile. We used to launch one of those per month out of the sites at Vandenberg, and you can imagine what it cost to bring one of those things up ready and to launch it.
Back to the Tuskegee Airmen: even as recently as the late 1960’s, we didn’t have any kind of an organization, and many of us were still in the armed services. I guess we were conditioned not to do things that upset the power structure. So we began an organization in the 1960s, and one of the things we did was create a scholarship program that has grown to have an endowment of two million dollars. I’m the selection chair for that organization, and each year we award scholarships of $1500 each to deserving students across the country. It’s not a tremendous amount, but we give out $60,000 a year, and it’s a very rewarding thing.
I’m a former teacher. After getting out of the service I taught at Cabrillo High School. I had been in the area of education in the military, through supervising people, seeing if they were brought up to the skill level needed. After having worked on machines for a number of years, I decided this is enough. I wanted to do something that had more to do with people. Most of my studies were in the area of social subjects, such as sociology, psychology, and human behavior. I thought that I would enjoy doing that type of thing in the classroom and I felt that my experience in the military would be beneficial to the students — I looked at it from the standpoint of discipline and orderliness. Well, my first two months in the classroom were the most frustrating of my life because students just don’t respond to discipline that much! I had to backtrack out of my training mode. But after I made some adjustments and went through some workshops, I was well adjusted and things went much better.
I want to tell you another story. Ever hear of the Elks? In 1989, I read the paper one morning and noticed that the Elk’s Lodge in Lompoc was having a big brouhaha. Several prominent people were punched out, and the school board president was in a fight, and there were almost 160 people present that evening — one of the issues had to do with admitting people for membership. It turned out that one of the people being considered was a retired policeman who had worked with the Elks in the kitchen and on the barbecues, and he was rejected because he was black. Five people voted against his admission, and 155 voted for his admission, but the five prevailed. This was the rule at the time. Only three people were necessary to reject something if they voted against it, regardless of the number for it.
Well, I started a letter-writing campaign to social organizations, church organizations, school boards, city councils, as well as State Senator Gary Hart – we covered the entire spectrum , and my wife, my son and I generated these letters on our primitive Apple computer. We had the support of the Lompoc Record and the Santa Barbara News Press. The Santa Maria Times reported things but they didn’t take a position.
The Lompoc Elks Lodge got much of their money from catering and parties, and they almost went broke because people stopped supporting it after all this bad press. The head of the Lodge said, this is not something we can do anything about. It’s the responsibility of the national organization.
So we went to the regional person, and we went to Senator Gary Hart, and by now we needed a lawyer. This had reached the Santa Maria lodge and they were complaining because people were beginning to withdraw from them, too. So Senator Hart said, “I can suggest an attorney. I want you to call Mike Balaban, see if you like what he has to say.”
I called Mike Balaban. Mike is a neighbor of yours – he’s in Santa Ynez. “We’ll mediate this,” Mike said. He began talking to the leaders of the Elks organization and they told him they could not do anything about it because it was a national problem. Our Congressman got involved in it because people were complaining to him about what was happening, and they didn’t want it to spread across the country.
Finally the regional guy said, “I’ll take it to the convention in New Orleans and we’ll see if we can’t get these rules changed.” And they did. And now if 55% of those voting agree then it becomes law.
So even in this late date, some dramatic changes can be made if we approach it in a way that doesn’t entirely inflame or upset. This almost upset people, but it worked, and I was really amazed, and Mike Balaban was really amazed. So I’ve been involved in some things.
You never know what life can hold for you. Don’t limit yourself only to the goals that seem possible. Tuskegee Institute had a very good vocational program and I got there by way of a poster ad I saw in a post office in Atlanta that said mechanic trainees were needed for the war. I applied for it, got it, and received the orders to go, but they sent me to the wrong school. Instead of going to Alabama, they sent me to a school in Tennessee, outside of Memphis. It was in January. I’ll never forget that January. It was cold, and I had used all of my money on bus fare to get to this school. I was told, “You’re in the wrong place. This is for white boys! We’ll see if we can’t find out where you’re supposed to be.”
Then they find out Tuskegee’s the place. The problem is: how do I get there? I don’t have any money. I didn’t have money for transportation, or for room and board. It was suggested that I go to a traveler’s aid society, and there I was given the address of an elderly couple. Most hotels didn’t lend themselves to black people in those days, especially in the south. So I stayed with this couple and I worked as a bus boy and I earned the money, got the transportation , and went on to Tuskegee. So that’s the start of my education. I was a high school graduate, didn’t have much hope of getting into college, my family was very poor. But I got my start there.
In Tuskegee, I went through several courses related to aviation instruction. In later years I took courses with Alan Hancock and the University of Nebraska, and graduated eventually in Omaha. After that I went to Cal Poly, earned a masters degree, and taught for Alan Hancock and Chapman College. I worked on a PhD for the United States International University in San Diego and did all the work except for the dissertation. I never could have imagined I would come this far.
My first solo flight was the most exciting thing I think I have ever done. I was about twenty years old, and I was in a Piper Cub. Are you familiar with it? It’s a little yellow plane. That’s what I flew initially. And to understand where I came from, what I had accomplished, and what hopes I had achieved…it was indescribable. Aviation had always been one of my dreams. My home in Atlanta was in the flight pattern into the Atlanta airport, so I was exposed to this every day, and I had a huge desire to be a pilot.
But solo — to fly it alone. You’re away from the ground, you’re away from people, and it’s just you and that airplane.
I was exposed to despicable things early in life when I could do nothing about them. But I found much satisfaction after I discovered that I COULD take action and help create positive changes. So I’ve worked in the area of human rights and tried to speak out for justice. I’ve also found determined people like Mike Balaban who could easily refuse to be bothered but who instead stand up and take on the task.
My advice to you? Life is long and it’s short. It depends upon the collective group of which you are a part, and the group might be as large as the world. Find it within yourself to contribute to the whole. We can most effectively do that by first making the best possible contribution to our own selves: through education, through questioning, through personal growth. In my life, achieving some degree of education has taken unusual effort over the very long haul, while I imagine you will have no problem going on and doing whatever is necessary. But I would encourage you to look to the goal that is so far out of reach you cannot even imagine what it is at this point in your life. We don’t know what we will do, what we will be, as we go through life.
I received a photograph from my daughter and her family yesterday. She’s an attorney. Her husband’s an attorney. They have two kids in Harvard. It’s probably difficult for you to even imagine how I feel as a grandfather. I also have a son who is making a tremendous contribution as principal design engineer for a firm in the Silicon Valley. So that’s the type of story I would like to leave with you. It’s about what can be done if we look forward to distant goals and stay on the path that leads to them.