The Life and Times of Aviation Pioneer Marlon DeWitt Green
As incredible as it may seem today, until the mid-1960s there were no African-American pilots flying for any major U.S. airline.
It took the indomitable will of one accomplished U.S. Air Force pilot, his sacrifices and those of his wife and family, the efforts of a tireless attorney, and a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to finally end segregation in the nation’s cockpits. But the victory did not come without immense personal loss and pain.
From an early age, Marlon DeWitt Green dreamed of becoming an airline pilot but, during the 1950s and 60s, found America’s commercial cockpits barred to him because of his race.
Turbulence Before Takeoff is the previously untold story of how Green defied an entrenched, segregated airline industry and overcame defeat in two courts of law to finally realize his dream.
Flint Whitlock’s explosive book is the often inspiring, often heart-breaking story of Green’s long battle, set within the larger context of the fight for civil rights and equality that nearly tore America apart in the 20th century.
Growing up in a poor family in El Dorado, Arkansas, in the 1930s and 40s, Marlon was an outstanding student. After converting to Roman Catholicism, he won a scholarship to the all-black Xavier Prep School in New Orleans and graduated as co-valedictorian. Setting his sights on a future as a priest, he was unexpectedly expelled from the seminary. He then decided to enlist in the Air Force which, in 1947, was still racially segregated.
Never one to shrink from a challenge, he applied for and was accepted to flight school, earned his pilot’s wings, and spent over nine years on active duty. During this time he also married Eleanor Gallagher, a white woman from Boston who campaigned against racism and discrimination as hard as he did, at a time when interracial marriages were considered taboo—and even illegal in many states.
To earn more money to support his growing family (the Greens eventually had six children), he resigned his Air Force commission in 1957 and sought work with the airlines, which he had been led to believe would welcome minorities. Despite his excellent flying abilities and spotless military record, he found no airline willing to defy convention and hire a black pilot.
Fortunately, Green was not alone in his fight. Turbulence Before Takeoff is a controversial book that details the efforts of his Denver attorney who fought the system of institutional racism all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to secure the justice that had been denied Marlon and other pilots of color.
Marlon Green’s determined effort to earn the right to fly airliners was a long, difficult, and costly battle, and was finally achieved when Earl Warren’s United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1963 that Continental Airlines had discriminated against him and must offer him a job. Once that barrier was broken, the skies were suddenly opened to pilots of color. A special group, the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP), was formed in the wake of his victory.
But the long struggle had taken its toll and, although Green was hired and flew for Continental for fourteen years, his personal life took a downward spiral that resulted in family tragedy.
Besides telling the story of one man’s courageous battle against discrimination, Turbulence Before Takeoff frames Green’s story against the larger tapestry of the Civil Rights movement that exists to this day.
Capt. Marlon Green’s life is an amazing, untold chapter in American history of how one man overcame incredible odds to achieve his goals, but paid a heavy price—emotionally, personally, and financially—along the way. Yet his perseverance is an inspiration to anyone who has a dream.
Turbulence Before Takeoff is an important story that won’t soon be forgotten.
It all seemed so obvious and clear cut to Marlon Green.
Continental Airlines and United Airlines and Capital Airlines and Francis Aviation and General Motors and Abrams Aerial Survey Corporation and, by Marlon’s count, several hundred other companies to which he had applied had all turned him down simply for one reason.
They had not refused to hire him because he wasn’t any good as a pilot or because he didn’t have enough experience or because there was some blot on his personal history or a serious flaw in his character. His eyesight was perfect, and his health was excellent. He never touched alcohol or took illegal drugs. He had never been in trouble with the law. He had served his country honorably in uniform for over nine years, and had stood ready to put his life on the line if the need had arisen. Except for that minor flap about mittens at Lockbourne Air Force Base, there were no negatives on his Air Force record. Had he exhibited any number of other deficiencies, he could have taken steps to correct them. But he had the hours, the multi-engine experience, and a clean record. There was not a single legitimate reason he could see for the airlines not to be falling over themselves trying to hire him.
Of course, he knew exactly why he had not been hired. There was one glaring, obvious, screaming reason that disqualified him from becoming a commercial airline pilot—something over which he had no control: He had been born black, and there was absolutely nothing he nor anyone else could do to change or alter that fact of life.
So he determined that since he could not change, the system would have to change.
But where to begin? Because Denver-based Continental was the only airline to have given him a flight test and then passed him over for less-qualified applicants, Marlon decided to lodge an official complaint against Continental. Marlon was acquainted with Ramon Rivera, the executive director of the New York City branch of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), and Rivera informed Marlon “that Colorado had an agency that might deal with this area of law.”
Marlon contacted the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission and they sent him a form to fill out so he could detail his complaint. “I filled it out on August 13, 1957, and sent it in. They responded with a notice that the matter would be investigated, and in some number of days they would have some information for me about their investigation.”
In Michigan, Marlon finally caught a break. The story of his struggle to find an airline pilot’s job was picked up by Frank Hand, the aviation writer for the Lansing State Journal. Marlon said that Hand “wrote a story about how it seemed unusual that Marlon Green—with all his qualifications and his flying history and having served in the Air Force for nine years and three months—can’t get a job with the airlines. His article was sympathetic and got a lot of publicity.”
Perhaps too much publicity. Harrold W. Bell, Jr., Continental’s Vice-President of Personnel, had a copy of the article which apparently had been sent to him by someone in the company. On a clipping of the article was the penciled notation: “Green may have a big chip-on-shoulder; perhaps not interested enough in flying; too many personal problems on his mind.” Now, in addition to being black, Marlon was being labeled by people at Continental as a trouble-maker and publicity hound, neither of which would stand him in good stead with the airline nor improve his chances of being hired.
In addition, Ben King, Vice-President of Public Relations for Continental, later noted, “We wanted cockpit harmony…. We didn’t want anybody with a cause in the cockpit.”
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In the middle of December 1958, after several hearings, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission announced its decision: Continental Airlines must enroll Marlon Green in the next pilots’ training class. Company president Robert F. Six refused, and Continental’s legal team filed in Denver District Court an appeal to the Commission’s decision. The battle lines were drawn. The war was about to begin.
Flint Whitlock has written the deeply moving personal story of Marlon D. Green and his struggle to become an airline pilot. To read Turbulence Before Takeoff is to revisit the difficult and sometimes dangerous times of the Civil Rights Movement, when Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a generation of young African Americans, including Marlon, to achieve their dreams.
Special Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, 1961-62
In Turbulence Before Takeoff, Flint Whitlock offers an insightful biography of Marlon Green, a compelling figure in modern aviation history and the on-going saga of civil rights in the American experience. Whitlock reconstructs in this highly readable biography the gripping and prolonged struggle of Green to overcome the obstacle of racial exclusion, a quest that ultimately took him to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marlon Green’s case became a milestone event in aviation history.
Curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Turbulence Before Takeoff offers great insight into what one man—and his family—endured when all he wanted to do was “his life’s work” as an airline pilot. It also recounts the tensions permeating through the 1950s and ‘60s in the fight for civil rights. The story is tremendous, provocative, and well written and is a testament to courage, perseverance, and faith.
Southwest Regional Vice President
Organization of Black Airline Pilots
Turbulence Before Takeoff is the brilliantly written story of Marlon Green, a man who dared to dream of a better life for himself and his family, and his struggle to make his dream of flying as a commercial airline pilot come true. The civil rights news items winding through the story brought me back to those troubling times in our history and greatly added to the emotional tone of the story. This is a must-read for everyone interested in aviation, civil rights, or fascinating biographies of historical pioneers.
Aviation biographer and Publisher of Wheels Up News