Alfred U. McKenzie
First Lieutenant, United States Army Air Corps
a contemporary press report:
Alfred McKenzie, who took part in a major protest against segregation in the military in World War II while serving as a bomber pilot with the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, and then won a lawsuit decades later ending the Government Printing Office's discrimination against black employees, died on March 30, 1998 at Southern Maryland Hospital in Clinton, Maryland. He lived in Fort Washington, Maryland, and was 80. The cause was complications of prostate cancer, his family said.
"He was very friendly and polite, he never made speeches and I never heard him raise his voice," said Roderic Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which represented McKenzie in a class-action federal lawsuit against the printing office. "But beneath that warm exterior was a person of rock-solid principles."
McKenzie's principles were tested in April 1945, when he was at Freeman Field near Seymour, Indiana, with the 477th Bombardment Group of the Army Air Forces after winning his wings at Tuskegee Field, Alabama, the training site for black fighter and bomber pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Fighter pilots in Tuskegee-trained units had distinguished themselves in North Africa and Europe. But the black officers of the 477th, preparing for deployment to the Pacific, were denied use of a Freeman Field officers' club, which was all white.
After three black officers were arrested for forcibly entering the club, the base commander ordered all personnel to sign a directive that, in effect, established the segregation of the club, so that it would be clear they knew the policy. One hundred and one black officers, including McKenzie, a B-25 pilot, refused to sign the document. As a result they were considered to have conspired to revolt, and they were sent to Godman Field, Kentucky, to be court-martialed.
The Army Air Forces later dropped criminal charges since military regulations generally allowed for such sites to be open to all races, but reprimands were placed in the officers' files.
After the war, McKenzie, who was born and reared in Washington, worked as a pressman for the Government Printing Office. In 1972, as he neared retirement, he went to the Washington Lawyers Committee, a civil rights group, contending that he and his fellow black employees had long been passed over for promotions that instead had gone to whites.
With McKenzie as the chief plaintiff, the committee, with help from lawyers in 20 firms in the Washington area, sued the printing office. The black workers won the suit, and, after a long appeals process, the office agreed in 1987 to pay $2.4 million in back wages to several hundred black employees. The printing office also agreed to provide for advancement of minority workers.
McKenzie received only a few thousand dollars in back pay because he had long been retired. But Boggs said McKenzie had received great satisfaction from his court fight.
"In the days when he did this, it was a courageous thing to do," Boggs said. "People weren't running around suing the federal government. He really made a change in employment practices."
In 1994, the Washington Lawyers' Committee established the Alfred McKenzie Award for people who take legal action to fight for civil rights. Recipients have included six black Secret Service agents who sued the Denny's restaurant chain over alleged discriminatory treatment while on assignment with President Clinton in Annapolis, Md., a case that led to a multimillion-dollar nationwide settlement of such complaints.
McKenzie is survived by his wife, Ruth Bates McKenzie; a son, Keith, of Temple Hills, Maryland, and a daughter, Saundra, of Denver, from his marriage to his first wife, Elaine, who died in 1984; his parents, Raymond and Gladys McKenzie of Washington; a sister, Odessa Shannon of Silver Spring, Md., and a grandchild.
In 1995 the Air Force announced at an Atlanta convention of the Tuskegee Airmen veterans' group that the reprimands from the Freeman Field incident would be removed from the officers' files. Later that year, McKenzie received a letter from the Air Force saying that "justice has finally been served."
Last Monday, April 6, 1998, as 35 Tuskegee
Airmen looked on, McKenzie's ashes were interred at Arlington National
Alfred U. McKenzie, 80, a member of the famed World War II Army Air Forces officers known as the Tuskegee Airmen who later was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that changed hiring and promoting practices at the U.S. Government Printing Office, died of prostate cancer March 30, 1998 at Southern Maryland Hospital in Clinton, Maryland.
A pressman by trade, Mr. McKenzie had worked for the GPO for about 30 years until his retirement in 1973. Disturbed that he was continually passed by for promotions and by what he saw as a lack of minorities selected for job advancement, he filed a lawsuit in 1973 alleging racial discrimination at the GPO in its hiring, training and promotion policies.
His cause was taken up by the Coalition of Minority Workers and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. The case, McKenzie v. Kennickell, eventually led to $2.4 million in back pay for 300 GPO employees and applicants.
It was not the first time Mr. McKenzie became involved in a struggle for civil rights.
A couple of years after he started working at the GPO, Mr. McKenzie entered the Army Air Forces in 1942. He received training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and then was sent to Freeman Field in Indiana as pilot of a B-25 "Mitchell" bomber.
At Freeman, tensions were mounting over the segregated officers' club, movie house and other facilities on the military base. When three black officers tried to enter the officers' club, they were prohibited and one was arrested. The next day an order was issued that divided the soldiers into two categories: instructor personnel and trainee personnel.
Black soldiers were designated as trainee personnel and were refused access to areas for supervisory personnel. Many, including Mr. McKenzie, took the order as a blatant sign of racism and refused to sign the base order saying they had read and understood it. In all, 101 officers refused the order to sign and were arrested.
They were flown to Godman Field in Kentucky to await court martial. The charges were later dropped, but each soldier received a letter of reprimand. As Mr. McKenzie and the other officers were preparing to depart for the Pacific, the atomic bomb was dropped, and the Japanese soon surrendered.
At the Tuskegee Airmen Convention in Atlanta in 1995, the Air Force announced that the letter of reprimand issued because of the Freeman Field incident would be removed from individual records.
Mr. McKenzie was active in the Civil Air Patrol and the Tuskegee Airmen during his retirement years.
Mr. McKenzie, who lived in Fort Washington, Maryland, was a Washington native who developed an admiration for aviation as a child visiting Bolling Air Force Base. At the Anacostia Naval Air Station, he got a chance to see planes up close, to sit in them occasionally and to help his father, a sign painter, paint identification numbers on the planes.
His first wife, Elaine Sturdivant McKenzie, died in 1984.
Posted: 15 April 1998 Updated: 26 May 2006