How Fighter Pilot Richard Toliver Found Freedom from Racism and Self in Jesus Christ

Major Richard Toliver at Luke AFB in 1975. Photo courtesy of Richard Toliver.
Major Richard Toliver at Luke AFB in 1975. Photo courtesy of Richard Toliver.

Southern Baptist “Top Gun” Richard Toliver found freedom in the cockpit, from which he had dodged missiles and anti-aircraft fire while flying 446 combat missions in Southeast Asia during his twenty-six-year Air Force career.

He also battled racism.

Toliver’s idyllic childhood was spent in multi-racial California—“paradise,” as he remembers it—during the early 1940s. He dreamed of flying airplanes like those that flew overhead from nearby Oxnard Naval Training Base. That dream shattered when his family returned to his segregated birthplace in the South after wartime jobs ended.

“I hated the next ten years living in the South,” Toliver told SBC Life. “I was trapped in a prison. Everywhere there were barriers of poverty, color, hopelessness, despair, and vicious name-calling.”

Today, Toliver at eighty-two years old has held key positions at Apollo Baptist Church, an SBC congregation in Glendale, Arizona. He also is president of the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, active in the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and a nationally known motivational speaker.

Richard Toliver’s pilot training at
Craig AFB, 1965

In his nearly five-hundred-page memoir—An Uncaged Eagle: True Freedom—Toliver gives credit to the many people who encouraged him throughout his life. He writes of his courageous mother, family relatives, and a white man who was a “ray of light” in the darkness of racism.

That man provided Toliver, a Black high school graduate, with a scholarship to study at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, now University. There he met and learned from the Tuskegee Airmen who broke the military’s color barrier in World War II, who “inspired, motivated, and prepared” Toliver for an Air Force career, he said. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., fellow Air Force officers, and in the 1990s, presidential candidate Ross Perot were others who impacted Toliver’s life.

More than anyone else apart from God, Toliver credits his wife Peggy’s Christian life for his success. Married fifty-eight years, she dazzled Toliver and the Air Force community with her gracious attitude, warmth, and servant’s attitude while successfully parenting the family’s three biological and five fostered or adopted children.

Toliver’s disciplined character and Peggy’s background as an educator and stalwart Christian kept their children on the right path, the retired colonel said. They were also aided by Peggy’s mom, Elsie Hairston, who lived with the Tolivers for twenty-seven years after his father-in-law died.

“The most important part of my life’s experience was discovering that God is in control of everything,” Toliver said. “He allowed me to become all that I am today.”

After years of putting God off and making “deals” he failed to keep, Toliver had what he calls a “Damascus Road” experience at high altitude in clear air. The F-15 he was piloting was struck by lightning.

After safely landing the crippled jet, Toliver heard a voice that said, “How long are you going to keep up this charade? How long are you going to refuse to settle your debt with me?”

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Source: Baptist Press