By David M. Bernstein
I’m moved to write about Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery of Harlem, who celebrated his 90th birthday on April 18th. I first met him in 2004 at the Harlem
Book Festival when a friend asked him about the Tuskegee Airmen, whose cap he wore so proudly. The next year, I met him again as the cameraman for
journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate Alice Bernstein, when she interviewed him for “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights,” the oral history project of
the not-for-profit Alliance of Ethics & Art.
The project’s title derives from a statement by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, that “Ethics is a force like electricity, steam,
the atom — and will have its way.” The purpose is to preserve little known history in the fight for civil rights, and to document the force of ethics
working in the lives of ordinary people.
Dabney Montgomery was born in Selma, Alabama when racial segregation was entrenched in the South and also in the US government and military. During World
War II, black men were denied leadership roles and skilled training in the armed forces. In 1941, as a result of huge pressure from civil rights
organizations, the first all-black pursuit squadron, Tuskegee Airmen, was formed. Dabney Montgomery served from 1943-45 with the 332nd Air Fighter Group of
the Tuskegee Airmen, as a ground crewman in Southern Italy. Black pilots flew B-25s and P-51s marked with red tails, as escorts over thousands of bombing
missions in Germany. These heroic aviators served with distinction, and never lost a bomber. They were ready to give their lives to stop the Nazis, but
back in the United States, they were not allowed to ride in “white” sections of trains. Nazi prisoners of war ate in the dining rooms, while African
Americans had to clear out to make way for them.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the cause of racism, and all human injustice, is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
Contempt can be attractive to anyone, and Aesthetic Realism teaches us how to recognize and criticize it as the most hurtful tendency in the human mind. It
also teaches that real confidence and self-respect come from feeling we take care of ourselves by seeing that the inner lives of other people are as real
and as deep as our own.
It has been an exhilarating personal and educational experience for me to accompany Alice Bernstein and videotape her interviews (200 to date) with unsung
pioneers of civil rights in the North and in the South. The interview with Dabney Montgomery affected me deeply. It took place at the Mother AME Zion
Church in Harlem—the oldest black church in New York State—where he is Church Historian.
I respect the ethical choices Dabney Montgomery made as a young man who experienced racism. As I learned about his life, I thought of myself growing up in
the Bronx, feeling that, being white and Jewish, I was among the privileged. Then, in 1956, I enlisted in the Air Force, and experienced anti-Semitism. I
was also horrified by the contemptuous way black Airmen were treated by Southern Air Force personnel, and I’m proud that I sometimes broke up fights. But
back home, as happened before entering the service, I often got into shouting matches with people in my family. I felt ashamed of the way I could lash out
at others. It wasn’t until I began studying Aesthetic Realism in 1962, that I heard the criticism that enabled my own contemptuous attitude to change. In
Aesthetic Realism lessons I had with Eli Siegel, he taught me that I had to want to know the feelings, including the pain, of other people, in order to
respect myself. In one class he said to me:
Eli Siegel: You’ve got this feeling that you are the only person who suffers.
David Bernstein: I felt that.
ES: Is it true?
DB: It’s not true.
And Mr. Siegel gave this example: “When you can understand your mother at her most lonely and sad day, and also most angry day, you will have freedom for
yourself, because we cannot be free until we are fair to the suffering of other people.”
After this lesson, I felt more related to other people, and it made me kinder!
Learning about Dabney Montgomery’s life gave me a greater appreciation for what people have endured. The brave choices he made in the military and at home
are important to American history. In the interview, he describes his feelings in the 1960’s as he watched television in Harlem, and saw John Lewis leading
civil rights workers who were attacked with clubs and tear-gas while marching for voting rights in his hometown of Selma, Alabama. His decision to go home,
to join that nonviolent fight, and to be a bodyguard for Dr. Martin Luther King, shows the “force of ethics.” His activism has continued all these years. A
video clip from this interview with Dabney Montgomery is on YouTube.com, along with others, where history is told by people who helped to make it.
My colleagues in the oral history project are proud to salute Dabney Montgomery and wish him a Happy 90th Birthday! To learn more, visit
David M. Bernstein is a noted photographer whose work is in museums, galleries, and in newspapers and journals nationwide—most recently in books
published by the Museum of the City of New York—and in the permanent exhibition of the African Burial Ground National Monument. He is married to author
and oral historian Alice Bernstein.