The same day Frances told her story, “Conditioning” which was shared in the previous blog post, Norman told one about civil rights, too. It was a coincidence. Coincidence, or maybe there’s something in the air. Norman had told one on the same topic the week before, and got us all thinking. The way history books tell about civil rights is big and ceremonial; the way my senior buds tell about it is personal and complicated. I appreciate their point of view so much, because for me at least, the personal and complicated is so much more relatable, so much more timeless, so much more real.
Defending and Respecting Dr. Martin Luther King
During the fall of 1967, when I was a cadet at the United States Army military police school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, at least 70% of the training consisted of classroom instruction.
One day, a 2nd L.t., who was teach a civics class told the class: "Martin Luther King is a communist, an enemy of the United States of America.
Believing that he was not aware who Reverend King was and what he stood for, I immediately arose from my desk, stood at attention, and sharply saluted the L.t. Then I began to speak.
"Sir, with all due respect," I said, "Reverend King is not a communist. He is just trying to get the rights that the Negroes are entitled to."
No one said anything. There was silence. After a while, the L.t. proceeding with his lecture. I assume that my statement had been respected.
Several days after the preceding incident, I was assigned to Kitchen Patrol or K.P. Now this was unusual because I had already served my required one time on K.P. I surmised that the company was short-handed, I was wrong. My being assigned to extra K.P. wasn't just for a day.
I was assigned to K.P. for ten straight days. I was awakened at 4:30am. I reported to the kitchen at 6am. I peeled potatoes, and sliced onions, shucked corn, and made salads, washed dishes and mopped floors and did a variety of other tedious tasks until at least 9pm. For sixteen hours a day, I had to toil unmercifully. And if that was not enough, I had to endure the harassment of the mess sergeants.
For ten days, I missed military police training. My superious refused to give me make-up work for my missed classes. It never dawned upon me that saying Dr. Martin Luther King was not a communist was the cause of the dilemma that I was experiencing.
I was dismissed from my K.P. duties the day of the final examination. Although I had missed ten days of instruction, I felt that I had, at least, barely passed the test. However, I was mistaken. I was informed that out of the 300 cadets in my class, I had ranked 298 on the final exam.
I had flunked out of military police school. I was devastated. I did not know what the future held for me. I was worried. Several days after the test, I was informed that the company commander wanted to see me. I had something else to worry about.
Attempting to maintain my composure, I entered the company office. Inwardly shaking, I faced and saluted the captain, a tall lean wirily individual who was quite the dandy. His boots were brilliantly shined and his pants were sharply tailored and pressed. He, unlike the other personnel, wore a battle helmet and carried a swagger stick (tip down). He drove throughout the post in a red convertible that always contained an attractive blond. He was meticulous, not vain. He was likable, a trait that most commissioned and non-commissioned officers lacked.
"Private Cain" he barked in an unfamiliar hostile voice. "Are you trying some trick?" He stared me down. I could read anger in his eyes. This was not the likable and cool company commander that I had grown to know.
"No sir." I answered, wondering what he meant by assuming that I was trying to be tricky.
"You got the second lowest score on the final examination." By his tone I knew he wanted a verbal response.
"Yes sir" was all I could think of to say. I was literally shaken up inside.
"I think you are trying some kind of trick and I am going to get to the bottom of what you are trying to do." He said, "When you first got here, I recruited you for officer's training school, explained to you that there were too few black officers in the Army. You said that you were going to sign up, but you didn't. I didn't give you a command but I thought we had a gentlemen's agreement. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Sir," I said, "When the recruiting officer opened the door and saw me, he slammed the door in my face."
The captain's stern look softened for a second. "What about this low test score of yours?" he asked. "You finished college, was in graduate school part-time, taught school and was accepted by the Peace Corp. How could you flunk the final examination?"
"Sir, I did not go to classes for ten straight days."
"What, why?" he asked. By the tone of his voice I could tell he was astonished.
"I was on K.P. for ten days." I answered.
"You were on K.P. for ten days?"
At that point, the captain called for the first sergeant, who was directly responsible for the "day-to-day" activities of the recruits to come into the main office. When he arrived, the captain directed him to stand at attention.
The captain began to spiel x-rated language to the first sergeant. He definitely let the sergeant known that he had been irresponsible in the performance of his duties. Finally, the captain dismissed the first sergeant. He then told me that I still had to respect the first sergeant, and he assured me that I would be sent to another company for three weeks and thereby, be able to fulfill graduation requirements. He sincerely wished me luck.
When I completed the three additional weeks, I was told that I had received the second highest grade on the final examination. Perhaps I never flunked the first examination. Perhaps I had received the highest score in the class on the second examination. Only the army personnel involved knew.
By troubles, which started when I proclaimed that Reverend Martin Luther King was not a communist did not end with my graduating from the military police academy. Seemingly, my pay records mysteriously disappeared and for my first six months in Panama, my permanent duty station, I was not paid.
I survived by depleting the $400.00 I had saved in Philadelphia's Continental Bank. To say the least, my experience in military school was prejudiced to core. It was initiated by my defending Dr. Martin Luther King, something I have no regrets for doing something I will always do; He gave his live for his dream of unity and freedom.
(To Be Continued)
Defending and Respecting Dr. Martin Luther King (Part 2)
In 1965, I defended Dr. Kin's honor, when as a cadet in the military police academy in Fort Gordon, Georgia, I corrected an officer who said that Dr. King was a community. I never regretted the dire consequence the Army gave me for defending Dr. King's name.
Ten years after the Fort Gordon affair (1975), when I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, an incident occurred that prompted me to respect the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. The incident in question began one spring night when I injured my left wrist, which I assumed was sprained.
When I arrived at Grady memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta, four doctors attended to me. Because I had been employed as a surgical and orthopedic orderly at the Middlesex hospital in Middletown, Conn, years earlier, I had knowledge of orthopedic procedures.
I felt that only two (not four) doctors were needed to attend to me. After looking at my wrist, the doctors huddled, conferred and then returned to me. One doctor yanked my wrist. My entire left arm was set in a cask.
I had the feeling that the four doctors had conspired to experiment on my wrist. Like, I said I had worked as an orthopedic orderly. I had often held appendages in certain positions when doctors placed plaster on patients. I remained in Grady Memorial hospital for a week.
After being discharged from the hospital, my arm itched constantly, but I was unable to scratch because of the cask that covered it. I couldn't work. I had to worry about eating and paying the rent on the efficiency that I was renting. I went to the Unemployment office to file a claim, but was told that I didn't qualify for benefits; because those on unemployment compensation were required to seek employment and if an ailment or physical situation would prevent one from being hired by a prospective employer, unemployment compensation was out of the question. I was told, however, than an overdue Philadelphia claim that I had initiated months earlier would be activated. I accepted the disheartening/good news without an argument; however my calmness soon evaporated.
When I was on my way out of the Unemployment office, I overheard the case worker who had interviewed me tell a co-worker my situation. They laughed. How can people, especially those who held a position to help others, be so insensitive? I lost it, I read the culprits the "Riot Act." They called for security. I was not in the position to remain in the office, so I left.
What was I to do? In addition to being broke and hungry, I was worried about paying my rent and could not scratch the constant itching of my arm because it was covered with the plastered cask. That night, I decided to go to the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King to meditate. When I arrived, no one was there. I sat on a concrete bench which was in front of a pool. Dr. King's tomb (which set behind an eternal flame) was located in the center of the pool.
The inscription on the base of the tomb read: "The eternal flame symbolizes the continuing effort to realize Dr. King's ideals for the 'Beloved Community' which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles."
I could not be weakened because of the obstacle that I found myself in. I could have gotten enough money for a decent meal to quench my hunger, for resting at the bottom of the pool were an array of coins that visitors had thrown in for "Good Luck." But, I could not weaken when faced with obstacles.
Although I was broke and hungry, I did not think about wading in the pool and confiscating some of the coins. I stayed at the tomb for two or more hours. My mind was clear. It was not burdened by my problems. It was the realm of a spiritual Peace. I had never experienced the feeling of serenity that had overcome me at Dr. King's tomb. That night, I developed a plan that I instantly knew would solve my problem.
I knew that men were not given welfare in Atlanta in 1975; however, the day after the night that I had meditated at Dr. King's tomb, I went to the welfare office anyway. I was interviewed by a nice caseworker who showed sympathy. She told me that unemployment caseworkers should have sent me to see her and while men did not get welfare in Atlanta, she was going to make an exception in my case.
She game the some paperwork and instructed me to go to the welfare office in my district. Ironically, I was sent to an office that was named after Dr. King's name – and which was located within a block of his tomb.
When I arrived at my destination, I was greeted by another nice caseworker who not only informed me that my first check and food stamps would arrive within a week, but gave me enough money to purchase a meal as well. Things were looking up, but there was still another obstacle facing me.
A month after receiving my welfare grant, I reported to the hospital to have my cast removed. The same four doctors that were present when the cast was placed on my arm were present. As the cast was being removed from my arm, I intensely studied each of their faces. When the cast was removed, I saw that they were deeply disappointed. Their experiment (at my expense) had failed. They did not give me an appointment to have the pins removed from my wrist. They just left the room without uttering a word.
I spent the next month constantly going to the hospital to have the pins removed from my wrist. I was always given the "run-around". I chose not to return to Philadelphia for the operation. I did not have insurance and the Philadelphia General Hospital, which had been a public hospital, was closed. Finally I was given an appointment to have the pins removed from my arm.
When I entered the operating room, I immediately felt at ease, for the orthopedic surgeon and his two scrub nurses projected an aura of peace. I was not put to sleep during the procedure; I was, rather, heavily sedated. During the operation, I had a heartwarming conversation with the young doctor. He was from Brooklyn, New York, was familiar with Philadelphia landmarks, and spoke fondly of Foo Foo's Steak shop, that at the time, was located at 52nd and Locust Street.
Several weeks after my operation, I received my long overdue unemployment checks and returned to Philadelphia. I truly believed that if I had taken money from the pool that housed Dr. King's tomb, my ordeal in Atlanta would have been prolonged. Taking money from his tomb would have made me a grave robber.
I will always respect and defend the legacy of Doctor Martin Luther King.