The first days of April 1968 were not very memorable on campus at my college except for the indignities visited upon me and my pledge line brother by the big brothers of the Pi Epsilon chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. In Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting with sanitation workers. I remember, if I can say so without getting into double secret probation, being covered with syrup and corn flakes, told to put my clothes back on and being made to run laps around the track in the brisk chill of one spring night that week. I have other memories but they’ll remain secret as they are precious and reserved for those who have shared the rituals of initiation into that fraternity.
But the day before I was to join my fraternity we got word on campus that Dr. King had been killed and currents hot and cold swept through Princess Anne, Maryland and the rest of America. On campus we felt shock and sorrow suffused with the knowledge that this day was pre-destined; we were shocked but not surprised. Men and women who had spoken out or acted against the condition and treatment of Blacks in America had been killed before. Regardless, some semblance of campus life went on. Dr. King died on April 4th, the next day I was to be initiated into Omega. We had a ceremony to conduct in spite of our sadness, grief, and anger.
The morning of April 5th dawned with rage and fire across America. On campus we wondered what the men who had defiled our school with a burning cross were thinking and planning for us. Joe, my pledge brother, and I were charged with several tasks to complete so that we could ‘go over’ that night. I was told to get some gasoline for the ceremony. If you can picture this, I am six feet one inch tall. I had a clean shaven head and wore a dog collar, a field jacket and combat boots. As I crossed the rail tracks on the road up to town I also carried a brick (even though it was painted purple and gold and had Greek letters on it, it was still a brick!) in one hand and an emergency can to be filled with gas in the other.
A Black man was dressed like that the day after King’s assassination, walking off a Black campus that had been targeted by people burning large crosses on the football practice field, while large and small cities across America were going up in flames. I was walking but I was numb with fear. I was also determined to fulfill my task and to go on with my completion of Hell Week. I was rebuffed at the first gas station I got to but kept walking. In my small way I was going to keep going regardless of what happened. I imagined all sorts of ugly plans for me being hatched by the laughing men in that first station. I was in my own demonstration, my own march.
The second gas station I got to was manned by a tall, skinny white boy of about nineteen or so. He saw me and ran out of the office and in a mock stage whisper urged me to get into the wrecker and keep my head down. He took the gas can from me and filled it, got back into the truck after ducking back into the office for a short time and started the engine. As he pulled out of the station he asked me, “Are you one of those Kays?”
“Kays?” I answered and immediately realized he meant the Kappas. I told him which fraternity I represented and told me it didn’t matter because I was crazy as hell for walking around with a brick and gas can that day. He said he’d drive me as close to the campus as possible and drop me off.
When I asked him why he was helping me he told me the story of the fraternity boys from the “colored college” who came around and helped his family fix their farm after a hurricane. He wanted to return the favor and figured this was his chance. As he drove past groups of men that I fantasized as craven, jubilant, racist Klan members rejoicing in the killing of Dr. King he talked of how the help his family received made him realize that the negative things he heard about Black people were wrong. He was glad to help me do what I needed to do to join a fraternity. I felt safe with him even though to many of us he looked like those men who jeered us whenever we held a demonstration or who harassed us when we walked into town. Yet here he offered me protection, driving me back to campus.
Later that night after being initiated we stepped out of Trigg Hall and gazed over to the tree where my fraternity gathered and sang. The night was clear and calm, stars sparkled like diamonds. On a huge rack were suspended cast iron letters, Omega Psi Phi. Wrapped in burlap and soaked in gasoline they were lighted as we sighted them. We were elated and for a moment, we forgot the tragic news from Memphis, we could ignore the riots across the country, we were brothers after all.
And somewhere that same night in Somerset County, a tall, thin, white teenager probably never thought that he’d remain one of the most enduring memories of my time in Princess Anne. I’m ashamed that I don’t remember his name but he’ll always be my brother too.