“And I stood in the corner and thought, how can I change this situation peacefully? And that thought stayed in the back of my mind for many a month and year.”
~ Dabney Montgomery, Tuskegee Airman and bodyguard of Martin Luther King Jr., 2/14/2010
Walking into church on Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, was like taking a walk back in time.
A walk alongside Martin Luther King Jr., en route from Selma to Montgomery.
A walk along the tarmac with the Tuskegee Airmen.
I knew that this particular service, commemorating Black History Month, was on the schedule, but I had forgotten that it was planned for Valentine’s Day.
And so it was that I found myself in the presence of greatness.
Dabney Montgomery, a Tuskegee Airman and former bodyguard of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, was the guest speaker on Sunday at our Unitarian Universalist congregation. Of the 5,000 Tuskegee Airmen, there are only 280 still alive.
“And you have two of them with you today,” he said, indicating himself and nodding to Henry L. Smith, seated in the audience.
We listened, a rapt audience of nearly 200, as Dabney Montgomery told us about a time where people believed African Americans were incapable of flying a plane.
When people believed they could not be taught such skills, because they believed that the arteries in their brains were shorter than in other people’s brains.
We walked with Dabney Montgomery down the tarmac, as he recalled Mrs. Roosevelt (“you remember Mrs. Roosevelt, don’t you?”) demanding to be flown by an African American pilot.
He received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, and upon returning home to his hometown of Selma, Alabama, he only had one thing on his mind.
Registering to vote.
We walked with Dabney Montgomery as he went to register to vote, and was told to go around back and enter through the back entrance, as he was handed three separate applications to vote. The applications needed to be filled out by three separate white men who could vouch for his character.
“Not only was I black,” Mr. Montgomery said by way of explanation, but I “didn’t have enough money in the bank [to vote], didn’t have a house.”
“And I stood in the corner and thought, ‘how I can change this situation peacefully?’ And that thought stayed in the back of my mind for many a month and a year,” he said.
Dabney Montgomery volunteered to be one of Martin Luther King’s bodyguards on the historic Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
We felt the spit from onlookers as the marchers walked by.
“After the march, I took the soles off the shoes I wore,” Dabney Montgomery explained. “You can see them for yourself in the back, there.”
Several months after that march, The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed.
We walked back into the room with Dabney Montgomery as he registered to vote.
“And this time, there was a black woman behind the desk,” he laughed.
And then he turned serious again.
Whatever the situation is, “it can be changed through nonviolence, but you must stand and never give in. Don’t compromise. [We need] nonviolence not only in the schools, but in the home,” he said, referencing recent bullying attacks and the shooting by a professor in Alabama.
“Nonviolence is a must if we are to survive,” Dabney Montgomery concluded.
“We’ll walk hand in hand someday …” we sang, as the closing hymn, and as we joined hands and I reached for the African-American man’s hand next to me, I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. (I hate crying in public, but in this case, I wasn’t alone.)
Afterward, I was chatting with people I hadn’t seen in months as my 8 year old daughter Betty rushed through the door.
“Look, Mommy, they have cake!” she exclaimed, pointing to the refreshments.
“We can have cake,” I said, “But first, there’s somebody who I want you to meet.”
I told Betty that I wanted her to shake this man’s hand and thank him for his service to our country. That she would understand why when she was older.
We approached the throng of people surrounding Dabney Montgomery, taking photos with him as if he was a movie star. He welcomed all of this, even basked in the attention.
What does one say to such a hero? I thought.
“Your words were so inspiring,” I said. “Thank you for your service to our country. It is a real pleasure and honor to meet you.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Montgomery replied. A former ballet student, he bent down and shook Betty’s outstretched hand. And then, we all ate cake.
I went to church on Sunday seeking a spiritual boost.
But what I got was so much more.
Happening right in front of me
I had a friend in school
Running back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home coming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Hey, wake up Martin Luther
Welcome to the future
Hey, glory, glory, hallelujah
Welcome to the future …”