Fifty years ago, Washington D.C. burned in violent riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Penn Yan Academy students and their supporters were first hand witnesses.
Update: This version of the article includes comments that weren't available when the article was published in the print edition of The Chronicle-Express.
For weeks members of the Penn Yan Academy Mustang marching band had practiced and raised money to make a trip that they hoped would make lifetime memories, but when they boarded four school buses and headed out of town on a Wednesday at about noon, they had no idea of the memories they would be bringing home in just three days.
The buses rolled into Wheaton, Md. where the band would be lodged for three nights while performing in the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Several carloads of families and other supporters had also made the trip to the nation’s capital. Within hours of their arrival, the unrest that lay just below the surface of the city’s racial struggles was beginning to erupt after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which had happened as they were en route to the city.
While community leaders were able to contain the violence that night, they couldn’t stifle the rage and fear that gripped the city for long. Before the Penn Yan students and other high school bands from around the country were able to march in a massed band performance, full-blown riots broke out with fires and vandalism that lasted for five days.
The band, under the direction of Ray Burbick, participated in the concert competition Thursday in the capital, and earned fourth place honors. The group was to participate Friday afternoon in a massed band retreat type concert near the Washington Monument and in the huge parade up Constitution Avenue on Saturday morning, but this was all cancelled due to the rioting.
Sharlene Briggs, writes, “I remember getting back on the bus at the parade site and it was confusing. I’m not even sure we were told why, only a snippet of ‘people are rioting.’ The busses were headed out of the city and I believe our bus driver took a wrong turn, which ended up the right turn. We arrived back at the hotel in decent time, but the other busses were stuck in the city for hours.”
Lyle Spence writes, “I vividly remember.
“It was my first exposure to a major metropolitan area, and a very eye opening experience for this country boy.
“The monuments and the buildings at our nation’s capital were very awe-inspiring, and I recall performing in an outdoor concert setting. Later, we were on the busses on the way to a marching or field maneuvers performance when the concern among our leaders and chaperones became evident.
“I’m not sure how the news was spread, of course there were no cell phones. But we suddenly realized that our busses were being diverted out of the city on the quickest possible route. The freeways were bumper to bumper and crawling. We could see columns of smoke rising across the city as the riots grew. I don’t recall the details, but somehow we were routed back to our hotel to gather our belongings, and we soon left the city. The rest of the festival was canceled.
Cathy Rogers North recalls the driver of the bus she was on was Harry Monnin. "He was wonderful," she said. "The day after the shooting, the band was sightseeing at the National Archive. The chaperones rushed in and order all of us to the buses to go back to the hotel. I think that's when the niggling of fear started."
Debby Rogers Wheeler said since the phone systems were so overwhelmed, getting a hold of family back in Penn Yan was nearly impossible. Some families who had traveled with the band were staying in different hotels, or had not been with the band when plans were quickly changed, so making connections was difficult as the federal employees all fled the city that afternoon. “It was probably the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life,” she writes.
Recalling the sight of National Guard troops with helmets and gun loading up on their trucks, North says, "The city was on fire. Thick black smoke billowing everywhere behind us. Absolutely petrified. We had no idea where or how other family members were. I cried and cried."
Briggs says when her bus arrived back at the hotel, “I went back to a restaurant my friends and I had gone to the previous night. It was completely boarded up from apparent dissent between workers. That image sticks in my mind. We didn’t have racial issues in our home town. Could it be that bad that you board up a building? I was amazed.
“The trip home was uneventful, and in my young mind, I didn’t think about having been part of an important historical moment. Until later.
“We were so proud to represent our hometown and knew that our long and repeated practices would serve us well,” writes Wheeler, who like many of the musicians, was joined in the band by siblings, Cathy and Bill. Their parents and younger sister had also traveled to the city to support the group.
Spence adds, “It was not until we were home in Yates County that we learned some of the family members who traveled in their own vehicles were in some harrowing circumstances as the riots developed. (See sidebar) Later, we reflected on how vulnerable we were, so many bus-loads of country kids, out of their element amidst something they were completely unprepared for. It could have been tragic, but we had good leaders, bus drivers and chaperones who saw to our safe return home.”
North also recalls returning to Penn Yan at about 10 p.m. Saturday night, unloading on East Main Street and then performing their routine through the village. "We performed our parade routine for the many townspeople who came to welcome us home. I never felt prouder of our marching band and our town. I get shivers when I think of all that happened. It was one of the defining moments of my life."
According to information from the Capitol View website, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968 sparked riots in more than 100 U.S. cities. The nation’s capital saw some of the most extensive violence and destruction.
On April 5, President Lyndon Johnson dispatched nearly 13,000 federal troops to assist the Metropolitan Police Department. When the disturbance had ended on April 13, there were 12 people dead, 1,097 injuries, nearly 6,000 arrests and approximately 1,200 burned-out buildings.