459th Civilian reflects on life during Civil Rights Era

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Cierra Presentado
  • 459th Air Refueling Wing

Arthur “Art” Miles is a civilian at the 459th Air Refueling Wing and is currently the oldest member in the wing. He shares his journey of how he joined the military at a time when the United States was still segregated and how he persevered and reached the point he is today.

Circa 1960, Miles is a young man fresh out of high school. His options were to pursue school, volunteer to join the military, or get drafted into the military. With influence from his father who served during World War II, Miles made the decision to volunteer and join the Air Force. It wasn’t until he reached his first duty assignment that he truly began to experience segregation and racism.

“Being born and raised in Washington, D.C., we didn’t experience anything too crazy regarding segregation and racism,” Miles said. “I recall being told when you go down south, you will experience racism like never before. I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t prepared, but I knew I had no choice but to deal with it.”

Miles shares his first experience of being mistreated because of the color of his skin.

“I was stationed in the state of Arkansas at the time. My job was to train B-52 Bomber pilots on combat measures. Me and my friend, who was a Caucasian male, decided to leave base to go get some food. After we ordered, they brought his food out to the table and told me my food was in the back, and if I wanted it, I had to eat in the back of the kitchen. My friend, being Caucasian, got to stay up front and eat in the restaurant. I went in the back and had my meal.”

This would be the first time Miles experienced racial discrimination.

“I couldn’t believe it, I always heard of this happening in the South, but I never knew it could happen to me,” he said. “It was my reality. I was living in a time where even though I volunteered to serve my country, there were still people that hated me because of the color of my skin.”

Miles went on to experience racial discrimination for the duration of his time in Arkansas. It wasn’t until he reached his next assignment, in Africa, where he felt more at peace.

“They reassigned me to Africa, and for once, I finally felt accepted,” he said. “We still had to be cautious of course, but not because of race. I was finally at peace with serving my country.”

Miles recalls the first time he saw an African-American officer. He never imagined that a person of color would be a high-ranking officer.

“Jaws would drop, and anyone he came around would be in awe,” he said. “One of our own people made it to colonel. Little did he know, he inspired so many of us. Made us believe in ourselves; that we are better than what they perceive us ‘Blacks’ to be.”

Miles finished his military career shortly after his return from Africa and returned to his home in Washington, D.C. Sometime later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated.

“I’ve seen so much. I watched the city of Washington, D.C. crumble after the death of Dr. King,” he said. “Buildings, businesses, homes, everything going up in smoke and flames during the riots.”

Miles, after experiencing so much, made the decision to leave federal service and become a metro police officer. He attended the police academy and started a new journey. With his new career came hatred from not just the opposite race, but from his very own people.

“I wanted to do something different and I always wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “At this time, there was not much respect for officers from the Black community. I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t want it to stop me from reaching one of my goals.”

Miles remained a metro police officer for 21 years, and when given the opportunity, he joined the Air Force Reserve where he became a traditional reservist with the 459th Air Refueling Wing. After a year he became an Air Reserve Technician and later transitioned to a straight civilian with the 756th Air Refueling Squadron where he serves today.

“The 459th ARW is my final place of work,” he said. “Throughout the years I have witnessed so much ranging from the first African-American president taking office to the first African-American chief becoming the highest enlisted member in the Air Force. If you would have asked me this 50 years ago, if I can see a Black man or woman in any position of power, I would have strongly doubted it.”

After 40 years of federal service, currently Miles takes the cake as being the longest working member in the wing. He plans to retire Feb. 28, 2020.

“Mr. Miles is the equivalent of a quiet giant,” said Senior Master Sgt. Kim Robinson, 756th ARS Superintendent. “Always willing to go the extra ‘mile’ to help another. Almost five decades of selfless service. He will be sorely missed!”

As Miles gears up to start his retirement, he hopes this generation understands the struggle he and many other African Americans dealt with to pave the way today.

“We overcame oppression, racism and segregation. Yes, we might still experience some hatred today, but understand we have come such a long way,” he said. “I want young black men and women to know they can do anything. Our ancestors and those after them endured so much so we can have an equal chance at life. Learn your history, appreciate it and take action.”