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.
From the blare of police radio reports, more urgent incidents elsewhere were deemed more threatening than we were. Finally, the officer in charge ordered me back in the car and barked rapid directions that none of us could understand or remember; told us to get out of Baltimore and, if found again, we would be subject to arrest.
The rest was like a movie: finding ourselves quickly lost again, we saw that the broad, empty city avenues had at every few corners a sole armed policeman with a dog. I stayed in the middle of the street while another occupant asked for the nearest highway exit. Perhaps unthinking, the policeman gave clear, concise directions while we roared off and he yelled orders for us to stop.
A couple of quick turns brought us to the interstate exit — but the “up” ramp was blocked. Terrified, we hung onto our seats as I sped up the down ramp. Then a convoy of National Guardsmen appeared and came right at us on their way into the city. Everything happened so fast: I pulled to the right side of the ramp at high speed, right-side tires off the pavement and we flew past the sleepy-eyed faces of guardsmen deployed from home in the mid of night.
On the interstate again, there were no other cars at the moment, but we were speeding south on north-bound lanes — daring not to go north and have to take an exit again — and had to cross the median before we were caught going the wrong way. In most places, the median was too deep to cross and elsewhere not shallow enough to chance a crossing. But as a few headlights appeared in the distance, we had no choice: again we held tight and went flying toward the other lanes, tires biting into whatever ground was solid enough to keep our momentum.
Safely back on our way, no one said a word for several miles, until one of my black colleagues said, “You sure know how to `talk soft’ to police, don’t you?” and we all burst into loud nervous laughter.
There is not space to tell all else that happened on that trip, including a risky mid-of-night stop at a black farm home in the Virginia countryside and events in Atlanta where I thought I would be trampled in the crowd gathered on the campus of Spelman College.
At the time, we were just young soldiers in King’s army. As we all know, he didn’t live a long time. But long may he live.
John Burciaga lives in Newburyport.