“The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” This is a quote from James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time.
Just a short four years later, in the nation’s capital, I would be standing in the midst of what seemed like hell on earth. Some were running, stumbling, and falling. Others held on to all they could as they ran in and out of the shops and stores. More than a few made sure there would be nothing left to burn. Even the bricks were ablaze and crumbling. They were all ages, sizes, and shapes, but the one thing they had in common, they were all Black. The area was off-limits to military personnel who were not part of the operation. But I figured out a way around the restriction. To blend in, I would don my government-issued fatigues—our green non-dress uniform. “THE FIRE THIS TIME.”
Armed soldiers and military personnel were shouting orders, but no one seemed to be listening. They took no steps to stop the protesters. Their orders were to stand by, with weapons pointed down. Even as the buildings continued to burn—in places a corridor of flames—they stood by. The heat was intense, only matched by the intensity of the expressions on the faces of the young and old alike, who were carting off as much as they could carry. It was a “free for all.” Though there was no doubt in my mind that some of them were there because of their anger. Dr. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated by the system in the form of James Earl Ray. You could expect no less. Oh, the irony, when all the smoke cleared and the flames had been doused, the guided, as well as the misguided, were left living among the ashes. The rage had given in to despair. The Black low-income neighborhoods had been reduced to ruin. Who put out the fire.
Just a few months before his death, Dr. King and leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held a meeting to plan and organize a Poor People’s Campaign for the coming spring in Washington, D.C.
Organizers intended the campaign to be a peaceful gathering of poor people from communities across the nation. They would march through the Capital and visit various federal agencies in hopes of getting Congress to pass crucial anti-poverty legislation. They planned to stay until some action was taken.
The Poor People’s Campaign did not focus on just poor Black people but addressed all poor people. Unfortunately, as history records, before their plans could be realized, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Although feeling the sorrow of his death, the organizers made a decision to carry on with the campaign. On May 12, 1968, the first wave of demonstrators arrived in Washington. One week later, with the effort of every able-bodied man, woman, and child there present, they built Resurrection City on the Washington Mall. It was a ramshackle settlement of tents and shacks to house the protesters. And as I learned firsthand, to call it housing is being generous, at best.
This time I decide I want to take a close look at the other side of the protest, though still up close, but more personal. I had to focus my mind on taking in what my eyes were seeing. Some wandered about with a dazed look as just waking up to a bad dream, while others sought solace and refuge in their primitive accommodations. It was clear, to me, that most were taking on the symptoms of defeat. It would not take much—under these conditions—to become demoralized. People were hungry; there was not much food or an orderly way of providing it to those who needed it most, the young and the old. And there was mud all over, and if you did not have boots, and most did not, you had to secure your shoes someplace and do your moving about in bare feet. It was a mess. The mud seemed knee-deep in places. This was the heart of the “Poor Peoples” encampment. I went as I go to many other places. I was simply curious, not much more than that. But what I saw caused me to return.
To put it simply, it was a hopeless situation, no matter how well-intended. The King has died. There was a leadership vacuum; it could not be overcome. The best I could do was pick several out of the multitude to take to the base for a hot meal and a break from the drudgery of living in such inhospitable conditions. And in two short weeks, I would be discharged from the Air Force and out in the “real world” myself. However, how was I to know that Chicago would be my next destination? Here, destiny would step forward once more. Her hands were waving my way. I did not know if I was creating my destiny or it was being laid out for me. Either way, I would be there to see it all. It was not a plan; it just happened.
FIRE IN BATON AND truncheons out
Dateline Chicago, here we are: the time and place that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) would try to resurrect the Poor People Campaign. But, unfortunately, it was not to be. The eyes of the nation were focused on the Democratic National Convention, the “other” event. Fate had dealt its hand, and the cards had been played. It was inescapable; the end of the civil rights era was drawing to a close. There would be the last gasp and a whimper from the Black Power movement to be replaced years later with the rap and hip-hop culture. The sign of greeting is no longer Soul Brother. It is now my nigger. It is plain to see that it was a turn by degrees for the worst: If they could only see us now. Time stands still as life moves on. Now here we are. The fire and flames no more.
August 26 to August 29, 1968
I came here to Chicago to find a job and see my father for the first time. Both of the things I did do. Even so, my mind would not let me rest. I could not resist the draw of the action on the streets leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The convention was held during a year that would be remembered as a wake-up call and a warning to our nation. How easily it seems for us to forget.
Headline 2012: The Pentagon Is Offering Free Military Hardware to Every Police Department in the US
It was a social revolution with no blueprint. The Viet Nam war was in full force, and American “politics” had become a dangerous game in my lifetime. First, there was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 and the civil unrest that followed. Then, two months after Dr. King’s death on June 5, as if timed by fate, came the murder of Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Was all of this some kind of test? Yes, it was, and the grades are still coming in. For me, it was as if I had been programmed—I did not think of this then—to be an up-close witness to the contest of what is and what is not. I had to be there, did not know it, and had no choice. I quit my job, not knowing why. “The Fire This Time.”
My 21st birthday marked the beginning and what soon followed is best described as police brutality and all-out “war” on the protesters. It was people control, a step to the future that could not be taken back. There were no hot burning flames of the riots in Washington. The soldiers in Washington had been ordered to stand at ease. Whereas it appeared that Mayor Daley had issued orders to “attack and destroy.” And if this is so—as rumored—Daley’s orders were followed by the letter. Even bystanders were not safe from the swinging batons if they could not run fast enough. “Fire in the hole.”
There were indiscriminate beatings; it mattered not male or female, young or old they were routinely clubbed bloody. It was as close as you could get to gender equality. No one was exempt. One scene that was hard to put out of my mind was that of a young female protester—with blood streaming down her ashen face—being dragged by her long blond hair; she was in shock. At this point, she had gone limp. The “fight” had been beaten out of her. The only sign of life was a grimace and a moan when her head was allowed to hit the pavement. The cop only let go when he realized the cameras were trained on him. Up to then, it was “caveman.” It was not the Chicago that I had come to love. So, I would soon be on my way home to Arkansas. I had seen enough. I now had the space to distance myself from the images in my mind.