I try to do a weekly post (I missed last week) called Filosofa’s Idiot of the Week. Today, I would like to switch it around about 180° and write an “Honoree of the Week” post. Sadly, it is a posthumous award this time, but better late than never. The recipient of this award is a gentleman named Dabney Montgomery. Do not feel badly if you are unfamiliar with the name … even though “black history” is one of my passions, I do not recall hearing the name until news of Mr. Montgomery’s death crossed my path this morning. Mr. Montgomery died last Saturday, 03 September, but his legacy lives on.
The Tuskegee Airmen was a group of African-American military fighter and bomber pilots, as well as navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel, who fought in World War II. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. Mr. Montgomery was a member of this group, serving as a ground crewman until the end of the war in 1945.
When he returned to his home in Selma, Alabama, after the war, Jim Crow laws and segregation were still the law of the land in the south. Having just been honourably discharged, Mr. Montgomery attempted to board a train in Atlanta to return home to his family. “Before I could get in, a white officer threw up his hand. ‘You can’t come in this door, boy, you got to go around the back.’ “ After returning home, Mr. Montgomery went to the courthouse in Selma to register to vote in the next election, but was told by a clerk that he would need the signatures of three white men before he would be allowed to register. His father, Dred, a fireman for Southern Railroad, knew three white men who were willing to sign. But when Mr. Montgomery returned to the courthouse with the signatures, yet another hurdle had been put in his way … he was told he must own at least $1,000 worth of property. He did not own property, and thus was denied the right to vote. Obviously not much had changed in the south during his time of service to his country.
Mr. Montgomery attended Livingstone College in North Carolina on the GI Bill and graduated with a degree in religious education in 1949. A man of many interests and talents, Mr. Montgomery soon ended up in Boston, where he studied dance at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and later in New York at the New York City Metropolitan Opera Dance School! Sadly, an injury soon ended his dance career, and in 1955 he went to work for the City of New York, first as a Social Service Investigator in the Department of Social Services and later for the Housing Authority.
Then one day …
“I was sitting at home in New York City and I saw that attack on people in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They gassed them and beat them with sticks — the sheriff, the officials in their uniforms, because they was [sic] marching to the governor’s office to vote.
“And I saw them knocked down, and I saw the gas in the air, and I was sitting here — this is happening in my hometown, Selma! I said, ‘I’m going and get[ting] a taste of that gas.’
“I went to my director and said, ‘I’ve got to go home. … I’m going home to take part in that movement.’ “
The date was Sunday, 07 March 1965, and the event Mr. Montgomery saw on television would become known across the nation as “Bloody Sunday”. The previous year, 1964, the Voter’s Rights Act was passed, but African-Americans were still meeting with resistance when attempting to register to vote, and as a result, only 2% had been able to register. Dr. Martin Luther King was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black voters. There was much resistance in Selma, and on February 17, protester Jimmy Lee Jackson was fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper. In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for March 7. Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma that Sunday, and led by John Lewis and other SNCC and SCLC activists, planned to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people.
Mr. Montgomery had been active in the Civil Rights movement before, participating in the 1963 March on Washington, but when he returned to Selma, he jumped on the bandwagon with determination to make things better, to do whatever he could to help bring about an end to racial segregation. Within days of arriving in Selma, Mr. Montgomery connected with Dr. King, and by the beginning of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on 21 March 1965, Mr. Montgomery had become one of Dr. King’s bodyguards. The march took four days of walking 12 hours a day, sleeping in fields along the way, protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces that President Johnson had ordered.
Eventually, Mr. Montgomery returned to his job in New York City and in 1971 he married the girl of his dreams, Amelia. Mr. Montgomery retired from the New York City Housing Authority in 1988, but he did not rest on his laurels! Since his retirement, he has worked as a Social Outreach Worker for Project FIND, a non-profit organization assisting older adults on Manhattan’s West Side. Montgomery was also very active with Harlem’s Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the oldest organized black church in New York, and was also active on the Parks Committee and Harlem’s Interfaith Committee of the Tenth Community Board of Manhattan. He also frequently visited schools to talk to the children about his experiences, and according to his wife, he remained active until he became ill, just a few weeks prior to his death.
In 2007, Mr. Montgomery, along with the other Tuskegee Airmen, received the Congressional Gold Medal. The heels from the shoes he wore during the march from Selma to Montgomery will be on display in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is scheduled to open the 24th of this month.
There is no official record of how many of the Tuskegee Airmen are still alive today. What is certain is that within another decade, there will likely be none left to tell the story. With that in mind, a group called The History Makers began recording, preserving and sharing the life stories of thousands of African Americans, from President Barack Obama to the oldest living black cowboy. You can hear Mr. Montgomery’s story in his own words . What a noble project! And what a noble man … my hat is off to Mr. Dabney Montgomery … Rest in Peace, sir, and thank you for your many contributions.