I just got off of the phone with my dad. We were on the phone for an hour and a half discussing the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death (#MLK50). Now 80-years-old, my father has many memories from life during a very troubling time when a nation was racially divided. He shared with me his memories of hearing the news about Dr. King’s death and also what life was like for him as a black man before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement.
He told me about his friend who participated in one of the marches “when they went across the bridge” in Selma, Alabama. “She had rode on some of the bus rides,” Dad told me. “She’ll be 91 in June.”
Dad had a lot of friends who participated in demonstrations and protests during the Civil Rights Movement. He expressed how he felt bad that he wasn’t able to participate.
“If you were a black person in the military, you felt bad because there was nothing you could do,” he told me. “Not while you were in the military.” Being in the army, soldiers were not allowed to join protests for any cause. It was and still is against Army regulations.
“Do you think you would have [participated] if you wouldn’t have been in the army?” I asked my dad.
“I sure would have,” he said.
“It made me feel really bad because all that time I was in the army, all that stuff was going on. All the stuff that happened in Detroit (the Detroit Riot of 1967), (the Civil Rights Movement) – all of that happened when I was in the army.”
He said if he wouldn’t have been in the army during the Civil Rights Movement then “I would have been out there in the middle of everything just like any other black person. When you’re in the military, you can’t get involved with stuff like that. I had friends who went through some of that [involved in the Civil Rights Movement]. I used to sit around and listen to them tell stories about things that happened to them.”
The Ole Miss Riot of 1962
Dad went on to tell me about the time he was deployed to Oxford, Mississippi during the Ole Miss Riot of 1962. He had two jobs in the Army at that time. He was a company armorer, a person who was in charge of maintaining and distributing the weapons, and a radio operator.
“I meant to tell you,” he said to me, “the first black person to go the University of Mississippi?”
“Yeah?” I said.
“His name was James Meredith,” Dad told me. “And my unit, they sent my unit down to Oxford, Mississippi. That’s the town where the school was in. My unit had a black company commander.”
I remembered Dad telling me this story before when I was younger. It was when he was in the army before he was sent to Vietnam. Every time Dad shares his old army stories with me, I try to picture what life was like during that time. The Ole Miss story is one that always amazes me.
I always think to myself: I can’t believe this really happened and my dad was there. I mean, this is stuff you read about in history books, not stories you hear directly from your parents.
“So they sent us down there,” Dad continued, “and they let us stay on the football field – the university football field. And the first day, they (Dad’s chain of command) wouldn’t let any blacks go downtown because they (people in the city of Oxford, Mississippi) were rioting. They wouldn’t let any blacks go downtown and they wouldn’t let the company commander go, even though he was the company commander.”
“And then when [the general of the 101st] found out they wouldn’t let us go downtown, he came and he said that every black [soldier] that was down there was going to go downtown. They were saying the reason they wouldn’t let us go is because they were protecting us.”
Dad’s chain of command felt it wouldn’t be a good idea to send the black soldiers to the downtown area of Oxford where the riots were. They were concerned it would cause more problems. “You know, it was just another one of those things to keep blacks from doing things,” he said. The chain of command followed the general’s orders, though, and let the black soldiers go downtown.
April 4, 1968
On April 4, 1968, the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, my father was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. He found out about Dr. King’s death late in the afternoon.
“And when they told everyone in the barracks, they called the people that lived in the quarters – because I was married and I was living in quarters – and told us that he had been assassinated.”
“Do you remember how you felt when you found out?” I asked Dad.
“I felt more angry than anything else,” he told me. Dad said he was upset with other white soldiers who were making offensive comments about Dr. King’s death.
“Some of the white soldiers started making comments about him (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and said ‘serves him right because he was the one who was keeping up all that disturbance and stuff.’ But I felt more angry than anything else.”
Dad said he also felt really bad about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, five years prior to Dr. King’s death.
“Because when J.F. Kennedy was killed,” Dad said, “we were packed waiting to board planes to go to Laos. ‘Cause they were having problems in Laos, just like Vietnam was? We had all our stuff and gear packed and we were sitting there in the field waiting for trucks to come pick us up and take us to the airport. The commander came out and had a formation and told everybody [President Kennedy] had been assassinated and they brought us back into the dayroom so we could watch it on TV.”
#MLK50 and Taking a Stand
I asked my Dad how he felt about #MLK50, the remembrance events which are being held in Atlanta, Georgia and Memphis, Tennessee.
“It took them awhile to even get a Martin Luther King Day, you know what I’m saying?” Dad said to me. “So they should’ve been done that a long time ago. My job didn’t even recognize Martin Luther King Day when it first started before they made it an official national holiday like it is now. But on Columbus Day you don’t go to school. Now, who the hell is Columbus? You know what I’m saying? But I’m glad that it’s going like it is now. We have to step up to the plate.”
Now that Dad’s retired from the Army, he said he tries to get involved with positive causes which support the African American community. And you know what? He feels proud of his ability to be able to stand up for what he believes in and what he feels passionate about. Dad can now participate in a march and a peaceful protest if he wants to and he doesn’t have to worry about keeping silent because of the uniform.
“There’s nothing stopping me from doing it,” he said to me. “I can’t sit back and say, ‘Well, I can’t do it because I’m in the military.’ Unh uh. If somebody asks me to speak up about something, I can do it freely. I don’t have to worry about nothing.”
Feature image courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida