Toward the end, when the cancer was leaching the last of his strength and the Alzheimer’s had robbed him of most of his mind, the only voice that could rouse Calvin Hightower was that of his friend, TJ Cunningham.
Hightower’s wife, Patricia, reported this fact without bitterness, adding that her husband sometimes confused her with his home-care aides.
After all, Hightower had been friends with Cunningham for 66 years. As much as he loved his wife, she did not have that kind of seniority.
They were both men who had led extraordinary lives, from Hightower’s military valor to Cunningham’s civil rights struggles. But it was the bond of friendship between them that mattered the most.
When Hightower died on May 22, Cunningham, 83, gave a eulogy to his friend. He was even listed among his survivors.
They both came out of a hardscrabble existence in Florida when it was still part of the deep South. TJ Cunningham, the youngest of eight children, grew up on his family’s small farm seven miles outside of Plant City. Hightower grew up in Palmetto, a farming town about 60 miles south.
Those were tough times to be a black man. Segregation was in full swing. Cunningham convinced his family to let him go to Fessenden Academy, a black boarding school in Ocala. He paid the $35 a month tuition by milking cows and cleaning floors. Then he went to FAMU in Tallahassee.
That’s where he met Hightower. They were introduced by a mutual friend in 1947 when they were freshmen.
Thinking back on it, Cunningham is still a little puzzled about what made such a long-lasting connection between them.
Cunningham, who might some days be spotted in a cowboy hat and a Hawaiian shirt, has a smile that draws strangers to him. He frequently apologizes for being so talkative and then launches into another, even better, story.
“Everybody calls me TJ,” he says with a smile. “Calvin was very reserved, very polite and humble. I was always the talkative one. Someone told me a couple of days ago, ‘That’s the reason you two guys got along so well.’”
When they graduated, it looked like their lives were going to converge. The Korean War was in full swing and the Air Force was recruiting cadets for pilot school. The Tuskeegee Airmen had been a breakthrough during World War II, blazing trails for black pilots.
Hightower and Cunningham were invited by the Air Force to be part of the next generation. Both passed the pilot exam, but Cunningham changed his mind at the last minute.
“I backed out. I said, ‘I am going to go to law school,’ and Calvin said, ‘You are going to get drafted.’”
Sure enough, Cunningham was drafted into the Army, while Hightower went onto become a fighter pilot, flying 39 missions before the war ended. Cunningham was a member of the military police force in Korea.
As it turned out, Hightower’s air base was about 35 miles from the base where Cunningham was an MP. Whenever possible, Hightower would visit his friend. Sometimes he brought a treat. The Air Force issued its pilots a ration of liquor to steady their nerves. Hightower did not use all his ration, so he brought it to Cunningham.
Cunningham still treasures the photos of his friend, in his flight suit in front of his jet, “Kandy Kisses,” or in a dashing aviator jacket.
“He was a hell of a pilot,” said Cunningham, as proud of his friend as he was of his own brother.
Other photos show Cunningham in the flapped fur hat that GIs wore in the hard Korean winters.
After the war, Cunningham went to law school at Howard University on the G.I. bill, washing dishes and bussing tables to pay for the rest of his expenses. He was also following in the footsteps of his older brother, Malcolm. At that time, Howard University was part of the brain trust of black attorneys who were working to end legal segregation. The Cunningham brothers were in the thick of it.
The brothers worked together in a law firm on Rosemary Avenue in West Palm Beach, which was the black commercial neighborhood at the north end of the city.
He put his legal education to use almost immediately. In 1964, Cunningham stopped at a motel on Broadway Avenue in West Palm Beach to use a public phone booth. The owner of the motel, a white man, ordered him off the premises, called him the N word and shoved him.
That was February, 1964. Just a few months later, in July, President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to guarantee the right of equal access to public facilities, public accommodation, housing, education and employment.
But as far as the motel owner was concerned, no blacks were allowed on his property.
The newly minted lawyer sued the motel owner, and received a settlement.
He chuckled to recall how he sent a private detective to interview the motel owner who, mistakenly, thought the detective was working for his attorney, and bragged about what he did.
“You use those tools to your advantage in a legal way. I always tell people to use their mind to fight. It’s more effective. The mind resolves issues,” said Cunningham.
In addition to using the law to protect himself personally from injustice, Cunningham and his older brother became active in legal struggles to desegregate public facilities, golf courses and restaurants. TJ Cunningham won a civil-rights case that desegregated restaurants in Florida, a milestone in the still-segregated South.
“You had to do things like that,” said Cunningham. “You had to bring these incidents to the attention of the public so they would not happen again.”
Cunningham’s civil rights work was both idealistic and practical. “We were trying to create an environment so we could work,” Cunningham told a reporter in a 1998 interview.
Malcolm Cunningham later became the first black elected in Florida since Reconstruction when he won a seat on the Riviera Beach city council in 1962. He received 299 white votes, or 18 percent of the white turnout, a milestone in itself in a city where just six years previously someone had burned a cross outside the black polling place.
After the Korean War, Hightower stayed in the Air Force. He later flew fighter jets in the Vietnam War.
“You know what, I don’t think in all those years since 1947 when we met, there hasn’t been a month or six weeks passed that we weren’t in contact with each other,” said Cunningham.
During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union came perilously close to launching nuclear missiles, Hightower was one of the pilots positioned at Homestead Air Force Base to scramble if the crisis had escalated. He flew again in the Vietnam War and retired in 1973 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Of all the places he might have chosen to live, he came to West Palm Beach, because his friend was there. He was a developer, working on projects in the area.
“Every time they were together, they would talk about college, laughing and carrying on,” said Patricia Hightower. “It was always, ‘TJ, TJ, that’s my friend.’ “
Long after he returned to civilian life, Hightower still dreamed of flying. After the 9-11 terror attacks, he confided to his wife, “I wish I could fly.”
“He wanted the control,” said Patricia Hightower. “He was very proud of being a combat pilot.”
While Cunningham had spent his share of time in the limelight, many of Hightower’s achievements were a surprise to his friends. His wife decided to bury him in his full uniform, with all the medals that had been tucked away for years.
When he gave Hightower’s eulogy, Cunningham said, it was almost like he was introducing his friend. “I talked about all the things that people did not know about him. Ofttimes, people did not even know he was a graduate of college. He was just that humble a guy. He would never brag upon himself at all.”
As it became clear that Hightower was near the end, Cunningham visited more frequently.
“TJ stood by me through the whole ordeal,” said Patricia Hightower. “TJ would say, ‘Hey, man,’ and they would bump fists.”
On May 21, the day before he died, Hightower was very weak. Cunningham had to hold up his hand for their fist bump.
But once more he turned his face to hear the sound of his friend’s voice.
Through college, wars and civil rights struggles, TJ and Calvin were the best of friends. Right to the end.