Until Thursday, this column was going to be about a most impressive man: Mr. James Shipley, whom I met at the NAACP banquet last Saturday. Mr. Shipley is a 93-year-old veteran who has experienced both the worst and the best of the United States’ spirit as one of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. www.nps.gov/tuai/learn/historyculture/index.htm tells the story of the African-American men and women who served their country when the Armed Forces were segregated, when, according to Mr. Shipley, black military members were thought to be neither smart enough nor loyal enough to fly planes.
He faced discrimination on every front, including the educational system; a native of Tipton, Mr. Shipley completed only three of four high school grades. A senior year was not available in Tipton; he was not welcome in the white high school, and to graduate would have required that he attend school in Sedalia or Kansas City. I suppose keeping African-Americans from obtaining high school diplomas in the 1940s was an effective way to attempt to limit the advancement of those students.
But against those odds, advance he did. Mr. Shipley told his audience story after story of how, regardless of discrimination and hatred, he and others like him fought to find a place in the Army Air Force, eventually maintaining and flying planes, giving cover to white fighter pilots, and distinguishing themselves from the enemy by painting their plane tails red, thus earning the nickname “Redtails.”
After the war, Mr. Shipley came home to Tipton, where he and his wife of now 63 years ran a successful business and engaged in a prison ministry.
Earnest and soft-spoken, one of the heroes we take for granted, Mr. Shipley answered questions from his audience. What advice would he give young people today? “Stay away from drugs and alcohol,” he said. “But most important,” he said, “Get a good education. Education is the key to success.”
That is the story I was going to tell, until Thursday morning, when Mirwais texted to tell me that Professor Rahin had been assassinated.
The crew I worked with in Herat, Afghanistan, was special. Mirwais, Morid, Qadeer, Asad, Bashir, Touryalay, Haqiqi, and the Professor gave me insight to a country, a people, and a religion about which I had previously known nothing. They were all well-educated, smart, personable, and charming. Everyone was 20-something except the Professor, who was 54, and he had worked his entire life doing what Mr. Shipley said was important: helping people get a good education.
He taught in the Herat Law School and worked in the Prosecutor’s office for years. Though other Prosecutors became wealthy because they took bribes, the Professor wore the same baggy gray suit every day and did not own a house. He did not take bribes.
He went to work for the United States and was able to use his talents as an instructor to explain the rule of law to police officers and lawyers. I watched him, and I was awed by his ability to connect with his students. He asked a question; they answered in unison. He gave a short lecture and then led a discussion; the students all took part. He was an excellent teacher.
Eventually, all the “kids” I worked with emigrated to the United States. They knew what was good for them. They loved Afghanistan, but they knew that to remain there would compromise their safety. But the Professor?
He stayed and became Herat’s Chief Prosecutor, battling rampant government corruption. And because of that, because he wouldn’t play ball. Because he had worked for us, some murderer drove up to his new house, the house he was able to buy for his family with his savings from his U.S. employment, and shot him in cold blood as he and his 8-year-old son were leaving for some errand, a soccer game, something. His son was also shot, but will recover. But the Professor is dead.
I think his mission and Mr. Shipley’s advice tie together. They both espoused the importance of education. Mr. Shipley’s luck was that the United States offered education and he took advantage of the offer. The Professor’s misfortune was that he lived in a country that does not value education; on the contrary, many in power hope that the people will remain uneducated so that those in power may remain so.
I am surprised at the depth of my sadness. I have been gone from there for three years. But I cannot forget the unassuming goodness of a man in a baggy gray suit, any more than I can forget the quiet dignity of a man who does not harbor ill will toward a country that discounted his very existence. I cannot forget their love of their countries, and how dearly that love cost each. My tears flow freely for them both.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.