At an aviation convention in Las Vegas last year, retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton happened upon promoters for the George Lucas film Red Tails.
The movie tells the story of a group of African-American Air Force pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, who battled racial barriers to fight in World War II.
The pioneers made history well before Newton's 1966 entry into the Air Force, but the four-star general still holds a particular interest in their lasting legacy. Newton, 69, credits the Tuskegee Airmen for his own rise through the Air Force, including becoming the first African-American on the aerial demonstration team known as the Thunderbirds.
Newton, who lives in Lithia and whose wife is from St. Petersburg, traveled the bay area to promote Red Tails, which is now in theaters.
A former director of operations at Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Newton now is an aerospace consultant and recently talked with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Stephanie Wang.
A lot of people might not know as much about the Tuskegee Airmen as you do. Are there certain lessons you would hope they could learn from the movie Red Tails?
People know about Tuskegee University, or they may know about Tuskegee, Ala., but many of them might not know about this experience that this group of African-Americans went through, which really launched the success of African-Americans in aviation, in the U.S. Air Force and in the military.
Before that, there were little or no blacks in aviation at all. Maybe there were a couple that were in airports, but no one in any significant way. The leadership of the nation and particularly the military did not believe that African-Americans had the capability to be pilots. Well, they (the Tuskegee Airmen) clearly demonstrated that's not true.
Once they were allowed to engage in combat, they became very successful at doing that, and that's what George Lucas really brings out in this movie. That's the part that hasn't really been spoken to in the past.
For instance, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, Clarence Lester — they called him "Lucky" — shot down three airplanes. Back in those days, it was a big deal. It takes five to make an ace, and this guy shot down three in one day!
I would be so bold as to say if it wasn't for the Tuskegee Airmen, many of us would have never been in aviation. Guys like Fig Newton came along, and I stood on their shoulders, and I still stand on their shoulders, to achieve success in aviation.
So what I would want young people today to get from this movie is that their destiny is not defined by the circumstances they may find themselves in. The Tuskegee Airmen proved that.
What's your impression of race relations today?
Clearly we have made major strides forward. Many people have been educated and have a much more open mind about human beings.
However, with that said, there is a lot of road in front of us to still travel if we are going to see a society that is void of racial discrimination, or at least minimized to a small degree.
It's not that people don't know that it is wrong and, in my sense, immoral to discriminate. My personal view is there is a part of the population that knows and understands, but they just refuse to take that step.
And what do you think about race relations in the military today?
The military, I'm convinced, is the leading institution in the United States with progress in race relations. We certainly deal with many, many more social issues than just race relations. We are just way out in front. We do a terrific job of trying to educate our people.
That's not to say there isn't still prejudice and discrimination that still goes on in the military. That's still there, and that's to be expected. All of our resources come from the society I talked about earlier, so this process of educating never stops.
I was just at a meeting with Air Force leadership about how do we ensure that the Air Force has the diversity that we expect it to have as a large institution in our society. The military just works at this constantly.
And I just got an invitation to be at a ceremony for the first African-American vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army — the No. 2 position on the military side in the U.S. Army.
I'm very, very proud of the military, and I would do that all over again particularly for that reason. I felt like I could have much more of an opportunity and much more success in that institution than any other place in the nation for sure.
Okay, last question. When I called you yesterday (Monday), you were sitting on a plane on the tarmac. What's flying like for you as a passenger now instead of a pilot?
Flying is just in my blood, and I love it. Yesterday was a wonderful day, particularly in the Florida area. You want to be back in the controls all the time — even when I'm on the airlines. I'm going, Oh, what a great day. I miss it a lot. I miss flying and being in the Air Force, all of that.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was edited for clarity and length.