Feb 14, 2013 • By

Tuskegee airman, civil rights leader, share insights at Black History event

There was great excitement and energy from presenters and attendees alike when Tuskegee airman Lt. Col. Hiram Mann and lecturer Col. Nathan Thomas, Jr., visited the General Mills Main Office in Minneapolis Tuesday as part of the company’s Black History Month.

Mann, speaking to the Black History month theme “Leveraging our history to shape our future,” shared with sparkling clarity and specificity the struggles that he and others faced as pioneering military pilots who integrated the U.S. air corps during World War II.

As a child, Mann had dreamed of flying airplanes, but his family’s economic situation and race virtually assured that would not occur.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Mann wanted to fight for his country to help ensure that Adolph Hitler’s Nazis wouldn’t “come over here and do to my family, my mother, my wife what they were doing in Europe.”

Mann’s first attempt to become a military pilot was rejected, and he returned to his job as a bellhop. But pressure from civil rights leaders and African-American newspapers persuaded the military to accept black pilots, and on his second attempt he became a member of the first African-American air squadron, formed in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941.

Today, that historic air corps is known as the Tuskegee Airmen, who lost 150 of their nearly 1,000 pilots while forging a record so renowned through nearly 1,500 combat missions that they were honored in the 2012 film “Red Tails,” the color the pilots painted the fins and rudders of their Republic P-47 Thunderbolts.

Mann, 91, an advisor on that film, used humor and personal stories to engage and enlighten the audience in a way that felt personal and impactful, while Thomas focused his comments on the civil rights struggles of the 1960s – drama to which he had a front-row seat.

General Mills' Eric Alexander, Derrick Peoples, and Amber Pointer are in the back row. Hiram Mann is in front and Nathan Thomas is in red in the back row.

Thomas highlighted his accounts of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, being beaten and bloodied at the hands of police on horseback in Selma, Ala., and emphasized the unsung “foot soldiers” of all races who sacrificed so much in the name of equality and equity during the fight for civil rights in the United States during the 1960s.

Thomas tied to the civil rights movement the struggles of some who were never known and others long forgotten, and lamented that today the rights they fought for are taken for granted by many.

The son of a minister, Thomas took the attendees through a seamless flow of emotional stories, pragmatic historical details, and wrapped up with a call to action for increased knowledge of history and higher levels of engagement in the political process.

Both speakers – who hold numerous degrees between them – spoke to the importance of education. “No matter what, they can’t ever take that away from you,” Mann emphasized.

Two of the company’s eight employee networks – the Black Champions Network and Veterans Network – partnered to bring the two men to General Mills.

Presented by the General Mills Black Champions Network’s Black History Month Committee, the event also brought together American Corporate Partners mentees and protégés of the Twin Cities Black Employee Network.