Harford residents remember anger, sadness, violence 50 years after Dr. King's assassination

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A half-century after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bel Air resident Phillip Hunter still remembers the anger and sadness that permeated communities throughout the United States on April 4, 1968.

“It was a time of real sadness for me,” Hunter said Tuesday.

Hunter, 70, was a sophomore at Tennessee State University, a public, historically black college and university in Nashville, Tenn. in 1968.

As a high school student in his hometown of Selma, Ala., Hunter had participated in the 1965 civil rights march — led by King — from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. The marchers were attacked by police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma.

He witnessed more violence three years later along Nashville’s Jefferson Street, which ran through the TSU campus at the time, as people threw rocks and bottles at motorists. Hunter said some of his fellow students were among those throwing rocks and bottles, but he did not participate.

King, who preached nonviolence during struggles for racial equality in the 1950s and 60s, had been shot and killed while in the Lorraine Motel — now the National Civil Rights Museum — more than 200 miles east of Nashville.

“I was lamenting his assassination,” Hunter said. “[King] was a non-violent person, and yet he was assassinated in a violent manner so I was highly upset.”

Hunter recalls thinking “if you murder a man of nonviolence, then you could kill anyone.”

“Before that time, a lot of students were nonviolent, but because of the death, assassination, of King, they turned violent because there was a sense of hopelessness to a certain degree,” Hunter said.

He recalled a “targeted throwing of bottles” at white motorists on Jefferson Street.

Havre de Grace native Bobby Parker remembers being in Vietnam in the Ahn Khe District, where he was serving with the U.S. Army’s First Air Cavalry, on the day King was assassinated.

“Like everyone else, I was upset, but we were in a war zone. There was nothing we could do about it,” recalled Parker, 73, who is retired from a career with J.M. Huber in Havre de Grace and is a freelance photographer, who frequently contributes to The Aegis and the Record.

Parker said there “wasn’t a lot of talking” in the jungles of Vietnam among the soldiers following the assassination, but 50 years later he can reflect positively on King’s efforts on behalf of him and other African-Americans. But there are also some bitter memories for him.

“There was a lot of stuff I went through growing up, and a lot of stuff I don’t talk about today,” he said.

Patricia Cole, committee chair of the Havre de Grace Colored School Foundation, was 7 at the time of King’s death. She and her family were living in Compton, Calif., in 1968 — her father, Bernard, graduated from the segregated Havre de Grace Colored High School in 1949, the same building her organization recently acquired with a plan to make it into a museum.

“I remember the shock,” she wrote in a text message Monday. “I recall my mother crying; it was like losing a member of our family.”

She recalled the same feelings when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and when his brother, Robert F. Kennedy was killed in June of 1968 while running for president about two months after King died.

“Certain things in this world happen, you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing,” Baltimore attorney and Aberdeen High School graduate A. Dwight Pettit said, recalling national tragedies such as the assassinations of the Kennedys, King and the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

Pettit, 72, graduated from Aberdeen High in 1963; he and his family had to go to federal court to be admitted to AHS, as Harford County Public Schools would not fully desegregate until 1965.

Attorneys such as Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who worked on his case, and Pettit said they would have just as much influence on his adult life as King.

He has spent nearly 50 years as an attorney, litigating major civil rights cases in Maryland and the U.S., and he has published a book, “Under Color of Law,” about his life experiences.

Pettit said Tuesday that he was a first-year law student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. when King died. He said he was leaving his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity house when he got the news of the assassination.

“I looked downtown toward the Capitol, and you could see the smoke coming from downtown Washington,” he said.

Pettit made his way to the Howard Law School to find out what was happening. He joined teams of his fellow students who fanned out around the city, wearing armbands, to provide legal advice to rioters who had been arrested.

Thirteen people died, and more than 900 businesses were damaged over four days of rioting, The Washington Post reported in its 50-year retrospective in late March. Baltimore City, D.C.’s neighbor 40 miles to the north, also suffered days of deadly rioting following King’s death.

Harford County did not experience any of the violence that pervaded major cities, although tensions were high. Police were on 24-hour alerts, alcohol sales were banned, and multiple schools were closed, according to local newspaper reports.

“Countians, individually and collectively, expressed shock, indignation and sorrow over the assassination of Negro leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and some offered tributes to his efforts to overcome discrimination through non-violence,” Harford County’s then-weekly newspaper, The Aegis, reported in its April 11, 1968 edition, one week after King’s assassination.

“But throughout the county, fear of an extension of the senseless racial turmoil from Baltimore City into this area hovered over the thoughts of white and Negro leaders, businessmen and homeowners.”

The Harford County Parker grew up in during the 1950s and early 1960s was racially segregated. He attended schools open only to black children and lived in town where the movie theater only seated blacks in the balcony and many restaurants wouldn’t serve them.

Parker recalled being drafted into the Army the day he graduated from the New York Institute of Photography. He said he was trained in the Army under a “buddy system,” and the man he went shipped to Vietnam with, Lawrence Riggold, was killed during an ambush. Parker said he has never visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and “won’t look at war pictures.”

“Even some stuff today isn’t like it should be,” Parker said. “There are some places we don’t get respect, some places I don’t go in yet. Really, in Harford County, it isn’t like it should be” for African-Americans.

Parker has been active with the Havre de Grace Colored School Foundation’s efforts to turn the old school building in the city into a museum, and he has worked for years with the Negro Leagues Baseball Players Association and the athletic departments at Harford Community College and Morgan State University.

His photographs also have documented a vibrant and active contemporary African-American society in Harford County.

‘It was wild’

Pettit recalled seeing soldiers and police throughout Washington during the riots following the King assassination.

“The military was out there in full force as the night wore on and the week wore on,” he said.

Pettit said the atmosphere was “hectic, it was wild.”

“If you were not an African-American or police officer or a solider, you could be in very serious difficulty,” he said.

Pettit said he thought of all the work then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and King had done to ensure civil rights protections were enshrined into law, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

He also remembers, five years before King’s death, seeing buses filled with people going to the March on Washington — when King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech — traveling through Harford County on Route 40. The Pettit family lived in Perryman at the time, and his father operated a lemonade-and-sandwich stand where people could stop on their way to the march.

“That’s when I really understood the impact, as I watched all those buses coming down 40 on their way to D.C., the impact of what King was doing,” Pettit said.

The dream has not died

Hunter, who is retired from the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command, or RDECOM, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, has remained active in civil rights issues, such as protesting inequality in the workplace or in schools.

He has been working recently with a community group, the Caucus of African American leaders of Harford County, to work for “total inclusion and fair treatment of blacks and minorities in Harford County,” and he has been among the members of the community, black and white, speaking out at Board of Education meetings since a group of Bel Air High School students were photographed spelling out a racial slur last October.

He is also a charter member of the Havre de Grace Colored School Foundation, plus he is working with the Alfred B. Hilton Memorial Fund to raise money to build a statue of the U.S. Colored Troops solider and Harford County native who earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions during the Civil War.

He returned to Selma in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march. He and the many other participants walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with then-President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, and Obama’s family in the lead. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2016 for his participation in the march.

“Following Dr. King’s message of nonviolence and full equality, it didn’t stop with his death,” Hunter said. “It only made me kind of more forceful in advocating for fair and equal treatment for blacks. In other words, the dream did not die with Dr. King; [assassin James Earl] Ray killed the dreamer, but he didn’t kill the dream.”

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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