African American Responses to Lindbergh’s Flight

Before classes start at the end of the month, I hope to finish revisions to the manuscript for my spiritual biography of Charles Lindbergh. It’s not going to be drastically different from what I submitted in July, but I do think it will be improved, thanks to some insightful suggestions from my editor, Heath Carter.

Most importantly, I’ve tried to add more context for Lindbergh’s infamous views on race. For example, in a November 1939 article for Reader’s Digest, he worried that “the White race” was at risk of drowning in “a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.” Rather than join a world war “within our family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race,” the most famous American in the world hoped that the U.S. would help build

a Western Wall of race and arms which can hold back either a Genghis Khan or the infiltration of inferior blood; on an English fleet, a German air force, a French army, an American nation, standing together as guardians of our common heritage, sharing strength, dividing influence.

Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel, ca. 1935 – Yale University

Statements like that can seem to have come out of nowhere. Lindbergh simply did not write much about anything other than airplanes until the late 1930s, and certainly not about racial supremacy. Here I stand by my original argument, that he was most strongly influenced by his burgeoning friendship with Alexis Carrel, who encouraged the pilot’s interest in both mysticism and eugenics.

But if Lindbergh himself didn’t articulate such views until later, Heath’s suggestion did make me recognize that racism had been part of the response to “Lindy” since he crossed the Atlantic in May 1927.

At a time when Swedish Americans were increasingly thinking of themselves less in ethnic than racial terms, for example, it’s striking to see how often Charles Lindbergh was called “Nordic.” Among many other illustrations of that theme, there’s this Hartford Courant reader, who wrote to that newspaper’s editor that

The spirit of adventure which carried [Lindbergh’s] ancestors to these shores, 500 years before Columbus, is potent still and will live on for ages unless it becomes diluted in that racial urn, the “melting pot.” This I know, without considering biology’s teaching and confirmation. The half-breed is not beloved of nature or eugenics. The Jew is a power and outstanding member in every civilized country throughout the earth, because he remains a Jew. And the Nordic if it wishes to remain as such should learn from this wise and ancient race to keep its blood-lines pure.

Or the magazine article from later that summer, casually summarized by the Associated Press and reprinted in papers around the country, reporting that Charles Lindbergh was “an approximate likeness of the modern eminent American,” a representative of “the Nordic type” that was “constantly being modified by… volatile races from the shores of the Mediterranean.”

But still more striking was the varied response of Americans who were not white, including the black writers surveyed by Mark Helbling in a 2002 article in the journal Prospects. “As did almost all Americans,” he begins, “African Americans celebrated both [Lindbergh’s] personal courage and the courage of humankind in general to transcend limits that had never before been surpassed.” But past that broad acclamation of what Lindbergh had accomplished on behalf of humanity, Helbling found a spectrum of responses that reflected larger debates among black Americans about how to live in a racialized society.

On the one hand, Lindbergh became a model for racial self-sufficiency. “What a lesson for the Negro race does this epochal feat hold!”, emphasized the newspaper of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the black nationalist group founded by Marcus Garvey (deported to Jamaica earlier in 1927). One reader of the Chicago Defender suggested that while whites like Lindbergh saw the Atlantic Ocean as an expanse to be spanned and conquered, “the self-styled Race leader (generally some minister or bishop) sees the same body of water” as “a fine place for baptizing.” The lesson, for this reader, was for African Americans to leave “the swamps and valleys of superstition and fear” before the “merciless hand of evolution will eventually weed out those unfit to keep up the pace set by the dominant race.”

As Joseph Corn notes briefly in his book on the religious nature of aviation, The Winged GospelLindbergh’s flight did inspire pilots like William Powell, who dreamed of an aerial equivalent to the black-owned shipping line started by Garvey in 1919. Even in the immediate wake of the flight to Paris, New York’s Amsterdam News asserted that “a Negro would be given pretty much the same ovation if he did what Lindbergh did.”

Heavyweight champion Joe Louis (2nd from left) visits William Powell (right) at the Los Angeles flying club named for pioneering pilot Bessie Coleman – National Air and Space Museum

But others were not so sure. “Did you ever stop to wonder what would have happened if Lindbergh had happened to be a member of your race?”, asked the Chicago Defender in June 1927.  It was a rhetorical question, aimed at readers felt the same sense of alienation that later inspired Richard Wright to give a character in Native Son this line: “God’ll let you fly when He gives you your wings up in heaven.”

Down on earth, readers of papers like the Defender were regularly reminded how white Americans maintained their supremacy, with the name Lindbergh regularly paired with another word starting with the letter L.

“Not satisfied to celebrate the return of Lindbergh to this country,” reported the Pittsburgh Courier in late June 1927, “Mississippi had to outstrip the rest of the country by staging a lynching. Not just an ordinary lynching with benefit of manila hemp, but a de luxe lynching: ie. saturation of the victims with gasoline, tying them to a telephone pole and then applying the torch.” That same month in Indianapolis, the Harlem Renaissance writer William Weldon Johnson made the same comparison at the annual meeting of the NAACP, noting that those two victims had been lynched in “dark and benighted Mississippi… at [the] very hour when millions of Americans, not only white but black, in the city of New York were acclaiming Lindbergh.”

The Minnesotan’s heroic flight did add “to the glory of America,” said Johnson, but ending lynching would mean more: “the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”