The Long, Hot Summer of 1967, as it was called, was hot with 159 race riots that erupted across the United States. In June there were riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Tampa. In July there were riots in Birmingham, Chicago, New York City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and Toledo. It was born out of frustration with a history of institutionalized unemployment, abusive policing, and poor housing that continued to be unaddressed by those who could affect change. At the same time, the summer of 1967 was called the Summer of Love that was occurring in “hippie” communities, a stark contrast in privilege. In addition to all of this, the nightly news broadcast videos of transport planes carrying more troops into the ravages of Vietnam and the increasing number of flag-draped coffins unloaded from the same planes on their return. In this maelstrom of contradictions and violence, I landed at Ball State University to continue my journey toward a career in architecture.
Jimi Hendrix played at a local club just outside town on his way to his breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35–10 in the first Super Bowl, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in a fire in their Apollo spacecraft during a launch pad test, war raged in the Mekong Delta. And the Doors release their first album and its hit “Light My Fire,” which blasted out dorm windows at full volume and echoed across the campus. Ball State University, founded by the Ball brothers of Ball Jars fame, was located in Muncie, Indiana, a midsized blue-collar town of mills and factories. That legacy earned it the nicknames of Fruit Jar U and Testical Tech. Ball U t-shirts were a popular item and attracted the attention of the police on the southern, Bible-belt beaches during spring breaks. Some were even confiscated. Muncie was a racial powder keg and white on black and black on white violence was a common occurrence. It sometimes found its way to campus as townies stalked college boys to rough up or girls to assault. The university was an oasis in a city full of threats.
Lafollette Complex, Ball State University, which was demolished in 2020.
I had been assigned to Hurst Hall in the still unfinished Lafollette Complex, a collection of 4 eight-story L-shaped wings, connected by the graduate dorm, coming together at their corners. It was located on the northern most fringe of the campus, about a half mile from the main campus, which the trek for women in skirts during the winter months was a real test of temperate fortitude. The top four floors of each wing were the women’s dorms protected by alarm-armed doors from the testosterone poisoned hoards on the floors below.
An ant-like procession of parents and kids moved to and from the line of cars at the curb carrying the necessary and unnecessary. With mom and dad, I joined the parade and made our way to my room, my first home away from home. As my parents said their goodbyes, Mom said, “I guess you know you can never come home again.” It came at me like smelling salts! "What did she mean," I wondered in disbelief!!! I was her built-in babysitter for my two much, much younger sisters who were just starting school. Was I going to lose my room? Were they secretly planning to move away somewhere? On my first weekend back home, I understood my mother’s comment. I was entering into a new, formative phase of independence and self-discovery. The kid who left was not the same person who returned home. I had launched. Wise words from my mother. Decades later, I would see the same transformation in my own children. Then dad, in his usual "verbose" way, said, “You be careful.” That's it? No last minute words of wisdom other than "be careful?" I wasn't sure what he meant. Was this his “Birds and the Bees” talk? In time, I would get his meaning, a caution from his own life experience. They were wise words whose meaning would become frightenly clear soon. And there I was, a college man! Totally on my own for the first time in my life. My future, to the extent I could control it, was in my hands.
My dorm room was spartan as was typical in those days, just enough room for two. But three of us had been booked to inhabit this space! David was an easy-going white kid from a small Indiana town. Michael was a Jewish kid into the "Goth" style with some strange egocentric characteristics from the Gold Coast of north side Chicago. Our dorm room was the model of diversity. It was temporary thankfully but interesting.
I had spent the summer working for Mr. Myers, a long-time friend of my parents and a leader in their church. He had a landscaping business and at 17 I was too young to get a factory job. So, I worked for him through the heat of summer. I had worked for him the previous year but during this summer I grew four inches in just three months! The explosive growth made my knees very unstable. Merely stepping off a curb could lead to a collapsingly painful dislocation. But it would turn out to be an unexpected benefit later.
As I pulled my shirt off that first night getting ready for bed, Michael look at me, gasped and said, “You tan?” My shirt had hidden my natural brown paper bag color, a dramatic contrast from my much darker sun burnt arms, neck and face. Michael’s shock caught me by surprise. Why was this a surprise to him? Wasn’t I like other human beings with long exposure to the sun? With an incredulous look or realizing he had probably never seen a Black person up close, I snapped without thinking, “Of course I tan!!! Do you want to see my tail?” The tail comment came bursting forth from stories my dad had told me about his time in Italy during the war. Italian women made no distinction between white or black soldiers when it came to attraction. But they were particularly curious about African American men because they had been told by white soldiers that black men were monkeys and had tails. My response to Michael even surprised me and I still regret it. But it was my first experience with this level of ignorance. It would not be my last. My education was just beginning.
The Men in White
Word was spreading across campus that the Ku Klux Klan was going to have a march downtown. Through my early years, I had heard talk of the Klan, of lynchings and had seen pictures of men in white hoods and robes at cross burnings. But I had been shielded from the full horrors of the Klan’s terrorism and stories such as Emmett Till’s brutal murder and his mother’s decision to have an open casket so the world could see what racial hatred looked like. So, the opportunity to see a Klan march was irresistible. After all, I was a new college freshman and the world was my oyster. I was there to learn. How could I pass on the chance to see this evil in person. What could go wrong?
David, a couple of other black friends and I headed into town. The sidewalks were crowded with people including a large contingent of young black males. Plainclothes cops moved by saying,” Keep moving boys.” We made our way into the crowd and found a corner where we could watch the event clearly. Soon a bulge of men processed down the street toward us. It was like a 3-ring circus. The first ring was blue uniformed city police officers forming a tight circle around the second ring of the Klan’s kakis clad militia, the sun glinting from their chrome-plated helmets. Finally, at the center of this human roll were the white-hooded and robed men of the hour. This core of hate was safely protected from the object of their vile whose eyes were intensely focused upon them.
We noticed the Klansmen were distributing some piece of literature to the white members of the crowd. David told us to wait, that he would be right back. Minutes later, he returned with a copy of what was being given out and passed it around so we each could have a look. Finally, it came to me. It was a cheaply printed yellow, 8 ½ x 11-inch sheet of paper folded into a brochure. I can’t remember at all what it said. But I clearly remember the black and white pictures inside. There were two of them. In the first was a Klansman in hood and robe standing before a black man on his knees. His hands were bound behind his back as other hooded men stood by. In the second image was the same Klansman with a sword and the head of the black man was falling away from his body. This was their recruiting literature? They were promoting murder in the presence of law enforcement? Was it real? Did that matter? But as stunning as that was the real life changing revelation was yet to come.
The flaming cross of the KKK was created for the movie, Birth of a Nation, for dramatic effect and has since been embraced as a sign of their Christian authority.
As we made our way back to campus down a street lined with shops, I noticed a parked car across the street. My memory of this moment is very vivid. It was a burgundy over cream colored Chevy. A white woman was sitting in the front seat and children were bouncing in the back. At the rear of the car was a man tossing his white robe and hood into the trunk. He closed the trunk and made his way to the driver’s side door, opened it, got in and pulled the door shut. That’s when it happened.
When he closed that door, this man who had just been parading down the middle of a midwestern city street avowing his hatred, publicly promoting the destruction of black bodies, suddenly vanished like a chameleon into my surroundings. In an instant, this threat to my very existence looked like every other white person on the street around me. In an instant, it became abundantly clear to me how dangerous this element of racism was. How it could mask and blend in the jungle of hatred as a predator stalking its prey. In an instant, I realized how vulnerable I was to this evil. The fight for my literal survival was a guerilla war and I, with my skin of color, was wearing the uniform. I could be identified as prey from a distance before I could even be aware of the threat. Suddenly, every unfamiliar white person became a potential threat. Who is of like mind with this hooded menace? Who is friend and who is foe? How would I know the difference before their true nature is revealed? I suspect most, if not all, African Americans live with this kind of paranoia, this form of terrorism. I tuned in. I became much more aware of my surroundings and with who I shared space. Reading body language, movements and facial expressions became my early warning system that is always on alert even now. Dad’s warning to be careful took on new clarity.