Earlier this week, Americans celebrated Martin Luther King Day. On Friday at theaters nationwide, a new movie will focus on men who were fighting for civil rights way before there was a movement, according to Maj. Joe Gomer of Duluth.

He should know. Gomer was there, as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the segregated U.S. Army pilots and crewmen at the center of the George Lucas movie "Red Tails."

"We used to say that integration began in the skies over Europe," Gomer said. "We were a catalyst, really, for the civil rights movement that started 10 years later."

Gomer is one of just 46 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and the only one living in Minnesota. He had hoped to come to the Twin Cities for the movie's premiere, but a family illness will prevent that. Still, he will see the film soon, "because everybody will be asking what I thought of it."

His prediction: "There will be a little Hollywood. I think it will show off primarily the pilots. But the pilots were the tip of the iceberg. The true heroes were the support people. My plane had two names painted on the side of it: Maj. Gomer and [crew chief] Sgt. Pittard. That was really Sgt. Pittard's plane."

Gomer's unit was named for the historically black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where most of the applicants had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. They lived and worked as separate units during World War II. The only time during the war that black and white troops shared quarters, Gomer said, was in German POW camps.

"The Germans didn't separate the races," he said. "I got an opportunity to fly for my country in 1941. In 1948, President Truman signed an order desegregating the Army."

Gomer flew 68 missions out of two Italian bases, Ramitelli and Salerno. He never got shot down, "but I did get shot up, jumped one time in a P-47 Thunderbolt. It never flew again."

But he did, staying in the military for three decades. He took an Air Force post in Duluth so his daughter could attend nursing school at the College of St. Scholastica.

He recounts his history without a trace of resentment -- "the War Department called this the Great Experiment; we called it the Great Experience" -- but he acknowledges that proper recognition was a long time coming (for example, a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007).

"They have finally gotten more recognition, more appreciation, yes," Gomer said. At one World War II reunion, he added, "someone came up to me and said, 'We have waited 50 years to thank you for saving our butts.'"

While the movie should provide additional attention, Gomer finds something in real life a much more apt indicator that the Tuskegee Airmen helped start the country down a positive path: a black president.

"I never expected that, not in my lifetime," Gomer said of the election of Barack Obama. "It shows you how much progress has been made in my lifetime. And it points to our young people that there's really no glass ceiling, and they can do anything they want to."

And some intrepid young men doing what they wanted to, and insisting on it, paved the way.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643