Submitted by Dick Martin
WEST POINT FINE ARTS FORUM AND THE 1968 WASHINGTON DC RIOTS
By Dick Martin
In the April edition of Army Magazine, the official magazine of the Association of the United States Army, there is an article by General John S Brown entitled “Soldiers Showed Restraint during DC Riots.” This article got my attention because it reminded me of what may have been the dumbest and most dangerous decision I have ever made in my life.
At the time, I was a sophomore (Yearling) at West Point. We received only one weekend leave a semester. Consequently, we had to devise other ways to get away from the West Point campus without going AWOL. As a freshman, I was on the track team, so we made a trip to Rutgers for a freshmen track meet and after the meet, we were turned loose on New York City for a few hours. As a sophomore, I realized there was not much of a future for a 185 pound middle distance runner so I did not go out for track. Consequently, I had to devise other means of getting away from West Point on a couple of weekends. The good news is that West Point had various clubs that took trips away from campus. The bad news was that, in order to join one of these clubs required that you had some talent in the field the club represented whether it was the French, sky-diving or glee clubs. Since I had spent my entire four years at Springfield High School playing football, basketball and track, and realizing I was not a division one prospect, I had to find something else. The answer was the “Fine Arts Forum.” Those of you who know me know I don’t have an artsy bone in my body. No matter, they had no meetings and took all comers, possessed of an art talent, or not. This club must have been created with cadets like me in mind, so I joined. Some of the places we went were crazy and not where you would normally find cadets. Stories for another time! Such was the case on April 5, 1968 as we headed for Washington DC.
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King was assassinated. On Friday, April 5, 1968 after classes and not being aware of King’s assassination, the West Point Fine Arts Forum (Sounds official, doesn’t it?) began its journey down to Washington DC to (I can’t for the life of me remember what we were going to in DC). When we arrived late that night, we heard for the first time, of the news of King’s assassination and that Washington DC was burning. I have no idea why we did not turn around and head back to West Point. Instead, we were dropped off at where we were supposed to stay, which was just off H Street in Northeast Washington DC, which was in the middle of the rioting. We were told that it would be wise to stay at the motel where we were staying and be ready to go back to West Point on Sunday, which was the original time for us to leave. We had not eaten since noon, so we were hungry (and curious) so a number of us journeyed away from the motel right into the middle of riot area on H Street and miraculously found a café that was still open. While in the café, a gang came in. We overheard them tell someone in the Café that they had gone to the authorities and told them that they would clean up a section of the riot area on H Street if they were given amnesty for transgression committed in restoring order to the area. Even though the US Army had not arrived yet, they, of course, were turned down and could not understand why.
The next morning after a night of rioting, I was still curious and thought it would be “educational” to see more of the riot area; so I talked a friend of mine to go with me to walk through the rubble of the riot area. He was from Georgia and probably knew better, but agreed to go with me, probably not realizing how ignorant I was to the ways of the world and to save face. So off we went. I picture us as two innocent looking (which probably saved us) guys with short haircuts dressed in our obviously military civilian clothes. Somehow, after our tour, we arrived back unscathed and without incident and for me, much wiser to the world.
After reading Brown’s article in the Army Magazine, I now realize we probably have MLK’s nonviolent nature and beliefs and the US Army (read the article to find out why) to thank for keeping things somewhat under control and the two of us safe from harm. I never talked to my friend again about the experience, but he must have been wondering about the sanity of his friend from South Dakota.