On Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, at approximately 7:30 PM, I was one of
two white folks at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
Washington, DC headquarters on the corner of 14 th & U Streets NW. Built in
1907 for the Fourteenth Street Savings Bank – “THE ONLY NIGHT BANK IN
WASHINGTON” – there was a large lobby with an open stairway going up to
I was there because I had taken a year off from the University of Chicago’s
Doctor of Ministry Program to work for the National Council of Churches
(NCC) Division of Social Justice and SCLC helping organize “non-poor
support” for Dr. King’s forthcoming “Poor People’s Campaign.”
Like the other several hundred people of all ages standing inside as well as
outside the office on the sidewalks and in the streets, I was trying to absorb
the news that less than one hour earlier in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin
Luther King had been assassinated. Tony Henry, the quiet spoken SCLC
Office Director, to whom I reported, had assigned me several days before to
speak that evening at a suburban high school. We expected the audience to
be primarily white, church-affiliated volunteers who lived and worshipped in
Northern Virginia. This was my job for the Campaign: organize non-poor
volunteers and churches across the country, but especially in suburban DC,
to donate wealth and work to help make the campaign a success.
Tony and his staff were in his office on the second floor, completely
overwhelmed with answering phones, talking to people and trying to plan
what to do next. I got close enough to tell Tony that I thought I should still
go speak because people would want to know – even more now than before –
what they could do to help. With nothing more than a nod, Tony approved.
I walked down the stairs to the main office area headed for the door when I
was stopped by a crush of people coming into the office. I could tell by their
body language and loud conversations that the incoming group was more
determined and angry than the folks who had gathered inside the office
earlier. Suddenly, I understood why the new group’s demeanor was different.
Leading the group pushing through the door was Stokely Carmichael, one of
the founders of both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
and the Black Panther Party.
Stokely wasted no time in loudly announcing to the people packed into the
office that he wanted any whites present to leave. Everyone in the lobby
stop talking, turned and looked at me. I wasn’t hard to find in the sea of
black faces surrounding me. After all, not only was I white but I was six and
one-half feet tall!
Some of the people who had come in with Stokely started shouting that I
should leave. Instead of heading for the door, however I silently stood
looking into the eyes of all the people in the room. I saw that not all of those
who had spontaneously come to the office seeking support in their mourning
were angry – much less angry with me. For whatever reason, in that tense
moment I felt safe. I was not intimidated or fearful despite knowing that
many, perhaps even most people there assumed it was a white person who
had murdered Dr. King.
Instead of fear, I felt a great sense of peace. I realized in that moment that
even though I had been an SCLC staffer for only a few weeks, I had bought
into Satyagraha as consciously and consistently practiced by my SCLC
colleagues, black as well as white. Then something remarkable happened.
Coming slowly down the stairs Tony Henry moved through the crowd toward
Stokely. He stopped, however, well before he reached Carmichael, and he
softly said, “Stokely, run your SNCC office the way you want, but please don’t
tell me how to run SCLC.” Stokely silently stared at Tony for a few seconds,
then he turned and walked out with his followers.
I walked out of the office onto U street where my car was parked. Some
young people had started looting stores across the street from my car. As I
got into my car, they looked at me and smiled as they carried goods out of
stores. I smiled back and started driving toward the 14 th Street Bridge to
cross into Virginia. In a futile exercise, motorcycle police and squad cars
raced from one intersection to another trying to get ahead of the looters to
direct them away from areas where there had been no looting yet and toward
other blocks where looting was already taking place.
The high school auditorium in Fairfax County was packed. By the time I
finally arrives at the school, everyone knew Dr. King was dead. I wasted no
time, therefore, telling them that there still would be a Poor Peoples
Campaign and that now their help would be even more critical to its success.
In the meantime, several radio and TV stations had started broadcasting
news about the “rioting” that was occurring across the country. This news
made a small number of people in the crowd angry about how rioters were
going against everything Dr. King has preached.
Fortunately, however, there were several suburban pastors in the audience.
They turned the conversation about “lawlessness” into pleas to collect food
and clothing for the residents in DC whose homes and businesses were being
destroyed. People wanted to help and most of them did not want to judge.
Before the night was over, we had collected so many pledges of food and
clothing that it took almost one dozen trucks to haul it into DC.
Shortly after the meeting ended, the news announced that the national guard
as well as regular army troops had been called up to deal with the unrest in
the District. Marshall law had been declared and there was a citywide
curfew imposed. I called the office and finally got through to someone on
Tony’s staff who told me not to return that night. Instead they asked me to
get in touch with the NCC to get passes that would allow me and a group of
suburban volunteers to lead conveys of trucks with donated goods from the
suburbs into African American churches in DC. NCC acted quickly that night
to “pull strings” at the highest levels of government. The next day I got a
pass that let me go through the military lines surrounding Washington for
several days and nights leading convoys of donated supplies to churches
throughout the District.
Fifty years ago today I saw brave and compassionate men and women – DC
residents as well as suburbanites, people of color as well as whites,
Christians as well as Jews and Muslims, young as well as old – come
together to cope with their grief by doing as Galatians 6:2 instructs us: “Bear
one another’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfil the law of Christ.”
April 4, 2018