Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

"Fighting for Democracy": Bill Terry

November 18, 2011 by Allison Heishman


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts profiling the individuals whose stories make up Fighting for Democracy: Who Is the “We” in “We The People”?, the National Constitution Center’s featured fall exhibition. The exhibition, which runs through January 16, includes a world premiere theatrical production that brings to life the stories of men and women who fought discrimination while serving their country during World War II.

“We didn’t know that it was going to be separate and unequal…”

Bill Terry (Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum)

Fifty years. Bill Terry wasn’t able to vote for fifty years. He was convicted of a felony for "jostling" a white officer during the Freeman Field Mutiny, a famous protest involving the colored officers attempt to enter a segregated "whites only" officers club. Three at a time, the men tried to enter the club and were denied. One hundred sixty-two men were arrested; only Bill and two others were court-martialed.

Born in Los Angeles on August 13, 1921, Terry had dealt with discrimination before. He signed up for the Air Corps during his last semester at UCLA. After Terry had passed all the physical and written tests, an Air Corps colonel noticed that he was a basketball player at the University (in fact, he played with a young Jackie Robinson!) and decided to have him and a few other UCLA athletes who were also accepted into the Air Corps sworn in at a public ceremony on the campus. Upon discovering that Terry was African-American the colonel pulled him aside and asked him, “Why didn’t you tell us you were colored?” Instead of reporting to training with the rest of the recruits, he received a letter in the mail informing him that he was “too big” and “weighed too much” to be a pilot. At 21, he was 6’2”, weighed 175 lbs and was “in the best physical condition he could be in.” He was at a loss for what the reasoning behind this decision could be.

After his graduation, Terry was recruited to train at the Tuskegee Airfield. The pilots at Tuskegee soon realized that their fight for equality would be pervasive. They fought for equal treatment, equal facilities, even equality in promotions. The Freeman Field Mutiny was the culmination of many discriminations, and Bill Terry would end up paying a huge price for standing up for his rights as an American. He paid it for 50 years.

Terry and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen were finally pardoned in 1995 at the Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated National Convention, a group that Terry helped found. For those 50 years Terry was limited in what he could do, with a felony charge hanging over his head, he was denied many opportunities. He did not let those limitations slow him down. His son Jeff Terry said this about his father’s struggle: “It was a badge of honor for him. He was never bitter about it. He was in fact quite proud of it.”

Terry fought his whole life for equality. He made it his life’s work to make sure his voice was heard. In the last years of his life he was interviewed and worked with George Lucas as a technical advisor on the film Red Tails, which will be released in January, and was invited by president Obama to attend his inauguration.

Looking back, he once said: “For the first time in fifty years, I could vote, I could hold office, I was restored Second Lieutenant, and it only goes to show that we’re a nation of laws. If you wait long enough, you will be vindicated. But we did show them we could fly.”

To learn more about Bill Terry, visit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the "We" in "We The People"? on view now at the National Constitution Center.

Allison Heishman is the Theater Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center and a member of the Fighting for Democracy creative team.

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