During the last year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, I was vice president and housing chairman of a Pennsylvania branch of the NAACP. With influence far beyond our few numbers, we negotiated many issues with city leaders who assumed we were hordes of angry black people ready to threaten the peace at any provocation.
There were, of course, no few whites who were active members. I was asked to serve as president but, as Mexican-American, I felt African-Americans should always lead that distinguished movement at all levels.
When King was assassinated, a delegation of four headed to Atlanta for the memorial — three young black officers and me. We took my car late at night due to an unrelated meeting for which my presence was obligatory.
One of the others drove while I slept, exhausted, in the back seat until the driver mistakenly drove off the interstate and into Baltimore, which was under strict curfew and resembled a ghost town. As owner of the car, I retook the wheel to try to find quick exit from the city, but my first turn brought us headlong into a phalanx of Baltimore’s finest, who surrounded us but pulled only me from the auto.
Blacks were, and are, used to abusive police treatment. Ironically, the police didn’t know what to do with me. We learned later that many locales were under orders to avoid mistreatment of blacks lest it incite more riots. At first I was assumed to be white, another irony that could have been worse for me under the circumstances, but one of the cops wasn’t so sure.
Shoved firmly again the car, I was interrogated with a barrage of repeated questions while title and registration were checked. I made sure all my responses were stated quietly and avoided vociferously demanding “my rights,” to avoid an emotional reaction on the part of law enforcement. I was asked if my surname were African and I repeatedly said I was a person of color, and left them to figure it out from there.