After Making History, Witnessing History

CBS Evening News is looking at different people and events on the "Road to the Inauguration." When Barack Obama becomes President next week, he'll be a living testament to the generations of African-Americans who paved the way. CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller has the story of one history-maker who's ready to witness history again.

At 86 years old, Roscoe Brown still fits into the flying jacket he wore decades ago.

"The jacket I flew in when I was in Berlin shooting down jet planes," Brown said.

Next week he'll be in Washington, D.C., an honored guest at President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

"To go for the inauguration of the first African-American president that we like to think we helped make possible is really very, very exciting," he said.

He's talking about being part of the first all-black flying unit more than 60 years ago. They're about 1,000 pilots known today as the Tuskegee Airmen.

"Even though the war department had issued a study back in 1925 that said that Negroes didn't have the intelligence or the character or the leadership to be in combat units, we proved that we did," he said.

Their job was to escort bombers and guard them from enemy fighters. But even in combat, the military was segregated. So they also had to fight prejudice from the same white pilots they were protecting.

Brown explains one incident: "One of the pilots from the deep south said he wasn't going to sleep with any Negroes and he's going to sleep in the plane. But then when it got to be about 10 degrees his basic needs overcame his prejudice and he knocked on the door saying, 'can I come in?'"

The Germans never shot down a bomber the Tuskegee Airmen were defending.

Their accomplishments helped force the integration of the military. Next week, the military will answer to its first African-American commander-in-chief.

All of the roughly 330 surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen have been invited to President-elect Obama's swearing in.

If Brown could give president elect Barack Obama one piece of advice what would it be?

"Be yourself," he said. "He has all the skills and ability to do it, just be yourself, and we'll watch your back."

Given the record of the Tuskegee Airmen, that's no empty promise.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.