It was fifty-two years ago in 1968; one year into my four-year commitment to the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C. A beautiful Spring morning soon morphed into a sky filled with swells of black smoke. My wife, four-month old daughter, and I occupied a two-bedroom apartment in Oxon Hill, MD, just inside the District of Columbia. My job was playing taps for Viet Nam soldiers killed in action, White House arrivals, patriotic gatherings, and touring the United States two months of each year. While the spirit of America was beaten-down, it was not dead, yet.
April 4, 1968 is etched into my mind as the time when I believed that America was broken. It was the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead. Being that I considered King to be an American hero, I was saddened by his loss. His passing was met with the grief and anger from a sizable portion of our population. But for many of us, fear was added to the equation.
My wife and I stepped onto the balcony of our two-bedroom apartment and viewed the landscape, questioning whether the violence, looting, and burning of buildings would reach our apartment some four blocks away. I was totally confused. I was not a racist; open to other points of views; had black friends; and considered Martin Luther King, Jr. to be an American hero. But for the moment, my survival instincts took over. For the first time in my life, the safety of my family was my main concern.
I called one of my fellow musicians with the band who lived in a safer location and told him of my concerns. He immediately invited us to stay at his house for the night. By now, daylight gave way to the darkened night, leaving me to wonder how I would get my family to the car and travel to my friend’s house. The sky was leaking smoke and it was time for our escape. I had a .22 caliber pistol that might fire and might not. I decided to carry our daughter and my pistol while my wife carried the suitcase. If confronted, could I really shoot someone, especially people who I considered to be my friends. If challenged, I could show the gun, possibly shoot in the air, and yes, for my family, I might have to kill. How could I make eye contact with my black friends again? Thoughts raced through my mind while I struggled to make sense of my dilemma .
We made it to my friend’s house, and I didn’t fire my gun. The next day my friend and I traveled with the band to a concert in Philadelphia to perform at a Navy function. While traveling through the District of Columbia young people threw empty bottles against the windows of our bus. No one spoke while we traveled through the city and onto Philadelphia. While my family was safe at my friend’s house, the civic uprising continued from April 4th through the 8th. In Washington, 13 people were dead and 1098 injured at an estimated cost of 27 million dollars. The emotional cost was unknown.
While the hot summer of 1968 experienced temperatures well into the upper 90s, a brief monsoon unloaded over the District; not a good time to live in a tent. A community of 3,000 black people set up tents near the national mall just south of the reflection pool, and close to the Lincoln Memorial. They were determined to make a statement about poverty among the black population. While their attention was to stay a week, it grew into a 6 week occupation, May 15th to June 24th. The movement was called the Poor People’s Campaign, sometimes referred to as the Encampment Resurrection City. On Thursday evenings we played concerts entertaining tourist and residents of Resurrection City.
On June 6, 1968 Robert Kennedy, Jr. was assassinated in California. His body was transported by rail from California to Washington, D.C. I remember our bus ride from the Navy Yard to Union Station. Not a word was spoken. We stepped from our bus and played two hymns while Kennedy’s body was carried to a long, black hearse. As the hearse disappeared into the night, we packed up our instruments and climbed onto the bus headed back to the Navy Yard. Not a word was spoken.
The summer of 1968 has been reignited in a once dormant place in my brain. The emotions bubble over as my wife and I digest the television coverage of riots, killings, and lost lives happening before our eyes; wondering why the injustices of our society continue; why we have to be reminded that black lives matter; and why we watched a video of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis who was killed before our eyes. My wife and I turned to look at each other. Not a word was spoken.