When Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in 1968, shock waves made America convulse. Riots ravaged neighborhoods across the nation. It was utter chaos. I recall my uncle, who lived in Detroit at the time, telling about how Army tanks rolled across his front lawn, a vivid image indeed.
I was a sophomore at Warren G. Harding HS in Warren, Ohio. At the time, I remember people quoting that we had a black student population in the 40% range but it could have been much smaller. In any case, it was significant.
I’d seen racial tension at school but generally speaking, we got along pretty well, at least on the surface. Most observed a self-imposed segregation in common areas. Others mixed. I was one who mixed. Rarely would we get razzed for mingling in school but sometimes it happened in extra-curricular/social situations. If, however I’d developed a crush on a black girl, I’m certain that would have provoked open hostility. Inter-racial couples were a thing to be condoned/tolerated far in the future.
I wrote about where I was when Dr. King was assassinated. Back at school, the following days were tense to put it mildly. There were loud arguments, fights, vandalism, public confrontations and mob behavior. I remember the only way to get through the main hallway was to cover up with your books, using them to deflect blows and push through, throwing elbows. Eyes were blackened and noses bloodied. A fight in the cafeteria culminated in a chair being thrown into a large glass display case, As it shattered, it nearly severed the hand of one of the schools best athletes, which then calmed things down as people mobilized to care for him. It was a scary scene. The hate and tension were palpable.
I had a class with one of our football team’s top players. He was big, athletic, smart, good-looking, witty and popular with both whites and blacks. I remember his name because we talked nearly every day. I won’t use it here, though. We didn’t socialize outside school. I had other black friends I saw outside of school and tended to hang more with neighborhood kids but we were very friendly toward one another at school.
Everyone called him “Baby Huey,” after a popular comic character; a dim-witted, giant, lovable duck. Affable as he was, my friend never objected to the nickname, despite what many would interpret as a negative connotation and to my knowledge, he even embraced it. In fact, that’s how he signed my yearbook. He was such a good-natured guy, even if it bothered him, I suspect he’d likely let it slide. We’d always greet one another in the hallways and sometimes lunched together. We frequently discussed race, music, lots of things.
Racial conflict changes people. Mob behavior takes over and reason gives way to deep, even dormant or denied feelings that surface, surprising even those who express them. Such was the case between Baby Huey and I amid this conflict.
As the main hallway melee was underway during a class change, I ducked into the first floor boys room for a quick smoke. Sounds of skirmish in the hallway bounced off hard surfaces: plaster, brick, tile and aged oak. Thumps, bumps, groans and grunts leaked into the more isolated restroom, where marble and ceramic surfaces magnified it. Deciding I’d had enough tar, I tapped out my smoke and returned it to my pack. I hadn’t noticed that the sound from the hallway had gotten louder. As I opened the stall door, several blacks blocked my path to the sink. I was the only white kid.
I didn’t know one of them. I kind of knew another but not well. In the middle stood Baby Huey…his gaze fixed on me. His colleagues suggested what he should do with me. His jaw was tight, his fists clenched. Searching his eyes, I saw confusion. I started to say something, banal and Baby Huey threw a right to my chest, knocking me back, where I landed on the throne as if I’d just sat down to conduct business. Through the stall door, I heard celebration as Baby Huey urged his cohorts to move on. “Man, you NAILED that white boy,” I heard as their voices got fainter. I got my wind, collected my stuff and headed for class. I didn’t see Baby Huey for a day or two. When I did, at first we didn’t speak. I was angry and disappointed.
It took me awhile to realize how conflicted he had been that day. At first, I thought him a traitor. In time I came to realize (or perhaps rationalize) that he was pressured to quickly improvise a way to do what his peers expected of him, yet because he was a “mensch,” had to do it in such a way that would minimize damage to me. Like I said, he was a smart kid.
Hatred cuts both ways. Sometimes what we see isn’t all that’s there. That day, in the first floor bathroom of Warren G. Harding High School, a friend saved me from what could have been a total beat-down. He saved face in front of his friends, which in High School, means a lot…and I paid with a little pride, which I quickly regained.
We never spoke of the incident and we remained friends throughout high school. I’ve often wondered what became of my friend Baby Huey, who I remember fondly to this day.