By Sadef Kully
The unassuming Dabney Montgomery entered Merrick Academy’s auditorium supported by a dark cane and made his way toward the empty seats behind the podium.
Montgomery, 93, is one of the few Tuskegee Airmen alive today. The civil rights activist joined the students at Merrick Academy in Springfield Gardens in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Ala. last week.
The only sign that Montgomery was no ordinary person was his all-American baseball cap of red, white, and blue. On its cro wn were the words Tuskegee Airmen; the insignia for the U.S. military’s first black pilots group who flew in World War II.
After motivating speeches from city officials and community leaders like U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) and Gerald Karikar, an immigration lawyer in Queens. Montgomery, in a navy blazer and slacks, slowly walked over to the podium with a paper and announced:
“I am holding in my left hand a document dated April 21, 1918. This is a document from the War Department of the United States. In this document it states clearly that the black man is not strong enough to stand up and fight for what he believes in – his brain is small and because it’s small he can’t be taught how to do things such as fly a plane and an attempt to teach him to fly is a waste of time and this is an official document. Well, I am standing here and saying this is not the end.”
Montgomery was drafted into the Army Air Corps during World War II and served in the 1051st Quartermaster Company of the 96th Air Service Group, attached to the 332nd Air Fighter Group, as a ground crewman with the Tuskegee Airmen in Southern Italy from 1943 to 1945. To name just a few, Montgomery was awarded a Good Conduct Medal, the WWII Victory Medal, the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, a Service Award and the Honorable Service Medal.
“When we were attacked – we stood together and and said ‘We will fight, we will fight, we will fight’ and we fought and won,” said Montgomery as the students began chanting “We will fight, we will fight,” along with him.
“You must believe in yourself – as we believe in you. Fight for the rights of men,” he said. “When you know you are right, do not compromise and you will make this world a better place.”
After the war ended and he completed his education, Montgomery became an activist in the civil rights movement and marched with King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965 for the right to vote. He served as one of King’s bodyguards. He brought up a frame to the podium. Set set inside were two heels, a piece of paper and a neck tie.
“These are the heels I wore when I arrived [in Montgomery] as evidence that someone fought for you before and wanted you to have the right to vote. This is the neck tie I wore. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. guided my hand as I wrote his Atlanta address on this piece of paper,” Montgomery explained. “People have died for you and people have suffered for you. Give back to your communities – you can make it and you can make it big.
Students and other audience members responded with a standing ovation and cheers. Montgomery, who has had a long relationship with the King family, recalled one of his most vivid memories of King at an afternoon supper.
“We had this long meal together. That was wonderful. We ate at his godmother’s home on a summer afternoon and we had a wonderful time together. As a matter fact, he invited me to his wedding then and if I had known he was going to become famous, I would have kept the invitation,” Montgomery chuckled.
For Montgomery, celebratingKing’s memory had a special meaning during a time when the racial divide across the United States has widened.
“When stuff like this happens- it hurts, it hurts. The lack of concern for humanity. Regardless of your color we are human beings. And you are due the right of love and brotherhood. And I am concerned when that is not done,” he said.