Alfred McKenzie, 80, airman who fought for civil rights


Alfred U. McKenzie, a World War II bomber pilot and one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, spent a good part of his life fighting. He fought for his country. He fought against racial discrimination in the military. He fought against poverty in his community.

Through all the fights -- including one that led to his arrest by the military on mutiny charges -- Mr. McKenzie's love for flying and for justice thrived, and he lived as a proud airman and defender of the underdog throughout his life.

Mr. McKenzie, a longtime resident of Fort Washington, died of prostate cancer March 30 at Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton. He was 80.

"People remember him as someone who most definitely was not a yes-person," said his wife, Ruth McKenzie. "If something was wrong, he was going to fight it, but his fights were always about helping others."

He became interested in aviation as a youth while watching planes at Bolling Air Force Base, near his home in the Anacostia section of Washington. His father, a sign painter, would take him to the base and allow him to help paint identification numbers on planes.

Drafted into the Army for wartime service in 1942, Mr. McKenzie completed basic and advanced training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He was trained on twin engine planes and, after a brief stint at Godman Field in Kentucky, was sent to Freeman Field, Ind., as a B-25 pilot for the 477th Bombardment Group.

In was at Freeman Field where Mr. McKenzie's first full-fledged fight for civil rights took place.

He was among the leaders of 101 black airmen who in 1945 refused to sign an order stating they understood that facilities on base were to be segregated by race. All of the airmen were arrested, charged with mutiny and ordered to await courts-martial.

The charges were dropped -- the officers were given letters of reprimand and the base commander was relieved of his command -- but that did not end the struggles for Mr. McKenzie. He left the military with an honorable discharge later that year and returned to his job in the Government Printing Office.

After being passed over for promotion for several years, Mr. McKenzie began seeking justice through the courts, working through the Coalition of Minority Workers and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. His case became a class action suit, which led to back pay of $2.4 million for about 300 people and an order to end discriminatory practices in promotions.

In 1994, the Washington Lawyers Committee established the national Alfred McKenzie Awards, recognizing those who have represented classes of people in winning civil rights cases.

Mr. McKenzie was married in 1949 to Elaine Sturdivant, who died in 1984.

Services were to be held at 10 a.m. today at Breath of Life Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington.

In addition to his wife, the former Ruth Bates Harris, whom he married in 1987, he is survived by a daughter, Saundra Michelle McKenzie of Denver; a son, Keith Wayne McKenzie of Temple Hills; his parents, Robert and Gladys McKenzie of Washington; a sister, Odessa Shannon of Silver Spring; and a granddaughter.

Pub Date: 4/06/98

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