H.M. Cummings, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, never thought when he was arrested in 1945 that he would live to see an African-American president.
Yet here he was at Tuesday's inaugural ceremony for Barack Obama, bundled in a wheelchair at age 89, a long way from the April day when he experienced the humiliation of racism by the military.
Cummings, a B-25 pilot, was among 103 African-American airmen taken into custody at Freeman Field, Ind., for refusing to sign a letter promising to stay out of the all-white officer's club.
"I couldn't sign my rights away, my civil rights," said Cummings, of Columbus, Ohio, who recalled the arrest as he sat in a reserved section on the West Front of the Capitol, with a good view of the inaugural stand. He was one of hundreds of surviving Tuskegee Airman, the nation's first black military pilots, invited to attend the inauguration.
Cummings said each member of his unit was called individually to the commander's office. Those who refused to sign the letter promising to stay out of the club immediately were placed under house arrest.
"POWs had more freedom than we did," said Cummings, a second lieutenant at the time. "We didn't feel good about it. We had trained. We were combat ready."
The airmen had volunteered as part of an Army Air Corps program that taught African-Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. They trained as a segregated unit at an air base in Tuskegee, Ala.
Cummings, then 26, never made it to the war.
The former pilot said he wasn't surprised that an African-American would become president, but didn't think it would happen in his lifetime.
"I never thought I'd live to see it," he said. "I knew it had to happen, but I didn't expect it so soon."
Fifty years after the incident, Cummings was among 15 of the original 103 officers arrested who were notified their military records had been purged of any reference to the incident. The one airmen who was court-martialed and convicted was told the conviction had been reversed.