Integration In A Southern Mill Town, Two Marines, and President Nixon
In 1965 I was 14 years old and entering my freshman year at Woodruff High School, a year that would bring many changes to the tiny southern mill town of Woodruff. Located in the upper part of South Carolina, the area was noted for it championship sports teams, conservative family values and an unflappable sense of devotion to God and Country. This would also be the year that the high school was integrated.
On a hot August morning, I remember clearly seeing the small bus arriving then stopping at the top of the hill in front of the school. On board were eleven African-American students, 3 females and 8 males. Along with many classmates I watched these brave new students exit the bus, one by one, then make the long walk down the sidewalk to the front entrance of the school. I wondered then and still do today, how did these eleven students get chosen to be “the First”? What was going through their minds as they took that long walk? What conversations did they have with their parents about going to an all white school? Strangely, I don’t recall seeing any parents being there that day, white or black, and there was no media trying to make this day more than it was. There were no sit-ins, demonstrations, or protest marches. The occasion was UNEVENTFUL. The new students were welcomed without incident. It’s like the small town of Woodruff was isolated from the turmoil that was going on in the bigger cities at the time.
The bell finally rang and we all reported to our Homeroom class. Our teacher quickly assigned our seats which were in alphabetical order. I was seated directly behind Willie Thompson, one of the new African-American students. As the year went on I got to know Willie better. We both played on the Junior Varsity Football team. We soon became friends. That year seemed to go by quickly. In the following years more African-American students came, again without fanfare or hoopla. By our senior year in 1969 no one was thinking about that day four years earlier when the magnificent “11” paved the way for others. As the year ended we all scattered to find our place in the world.
Fast forward to November 1972. I was serving as a Rifleman in a Marine Corps Infantry Platoon at Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, NC. For many weeks my platoon had been practicing civil defense maneuvers. With full riot gear we learned and practiced different formations. We were calling it “Troop and Stomp” practice. We were taught the rules of when to use deadly force, how to disperse a rowdy crowd with tear gas and more. I was a young Lance Corporal and didn’t question why but certainly wondered how we were ever going to use these new skills. There was serious racial tension in the armed services at the time and the Marine Corps was desperately trying to work through it all. I figured that our civil defense exercises were related to being ready for any big flare ups of racial violence on base or in the local civilian community. Until I arrived at Camp Lejeune I had not seen firsthand any signs of racial dissent or tension. I quickly learned from my white and black superiors that it was not safe to walk the streets alone on base. How could this be, I thought. A Marine Corps base and it was not safe for Marines to walk alone at night. I was taught in boot camp that in the Marine Corps there is only one color….GREEN. We were all GREEN Marines. Two of my Drill Instructors were Black. All I saw was a Marine Corps Drill Instructor in my face, screaming and yelling constantly. I didn’t see white or black. I saw a Marine trying to teach me how to be a Marine.
I was more than just a little disappointed with my new understanding of the Marine Corps of the early 1970s. More than the other services at this time, the Marine Corps seemed to be on top of this. In July 1972 the Human Relations Institute was established. The Corps began annual training sessions wherein blacks and whites sat in a room and discussed race relations at the lowest levels. These were not rap sessions or a time to air personal grievances. These sessions were strictly monitored by trained instructors. I learned a lot in the sessions as I’m sure others did too. I felt there was hope for the Marine Corps and more importantly, I felt for the first time a sense of relief. Our country was going to be ok.
Nixon’s Inauguration Day 1973
After a final civil defense practice on the afternoon of January 18th we were dismissed and told to get some rest and to return to the Company Headquarters Staging Area at 2100 (9pm). When we returned we found several Greyhound Buses waiting for us. We boarded the buses with our destination unknown. We rode through the night, arriving at the U. S. Navy Annex in Washington, DC around 4am. Soon thereafter we were told that we were to be the reserve civil defense unit on call for the Presidential Inauguration. We were told to expect over 100,000 thousand Vietnam War Protestors. Now we knew why we had been doing all of the civil defense practice.
On the morning of the inauguration we were taken to a nearby messhall for breakfast. There were hundreds of Marines already there. I got into the slow moving line heading into the dining area when I spotted a black Marine sergeant who looked like my old school mate Willie Thompson. The resemblance was uncanny, I thought. As I got even closer I was more convinced that it was Willie. I was afraid to call out to him in case it wasn’t him. As a Lance Corporal I was pretty much in awe of any Sergeant. In other words, I was scared to death of them. I finally worked up enough nerve when I was close enough to holler out, “Hey Willie, Willie Thompson”. The Sergeant spun around then came towards me at a lighning pace. He got right in my face and said, “That’s Sergeant Willie to you.” We both embraced with big “man-hugs”. All eyes turned to us…..it was an awkward moment but still one that I think of often. In a time of tremendous racial unrest and antiwar tension, here were two former high school classmates, both color blind at that moment. We chatted briefly then returned to our respective groups.
As the day progressed we grew more anxious about how we were to be deployed and put into action. There was a small television near our holding area and many of us gathered around to watch the presidential inauguration festivities. There were thousands of protestors. but compared to other demonstrations from past years, this crowd seemed loud but peaceful. We watched President Nixon recite the oath of office then march in a parade. The DC Police had it all under control. No Marine Corps units were called upon. In fact, we packed up and left the next day with no one ever knowing we were there.
As of this writing, the nation is once again in a state of chaos. As baseball legend Yogi Berra once stated, “It’s deja-vu all over again.” In 1968 I thought the world was falling apart. War, assassinations, riots, looting, violent protests on college campuses and in the streets of America. I thought the world had gone mad. I feel that way again, only this time it’s seems much worse.
In a History Channel program that recently aired about the national unrest of 1968, the question is asked, “ Was 1968 America’s Bloodiest Year in Politics?” After a racist gunman shot and killed Martin Luther King on April 4th 1968, the next day, The Los Angeles Times editorialized that “we are a sick society that has fallen far short of what we claim to be,” adding that a “kind of mental and moral decay is eating out the vitals of this country.” The New York Times pinpointed the sickness as coming from the stench of racial prejudice and racial hatred that remained powerful currents of thought and were at the root of the murder of the iconic civil rights leader. “We are becoming…a violent nation of violent people,” the Louisville Courier-Journal moaned. Now the new question may be, “ Was 2020 America’s Bloodiest Year in Politics?”
How did we get here and what must we do the right the course? No doubt, progress has been made in race relations since 1968, but my fear is that any progress made will be erased if our nation’s leaders do not come together to explore, examine and have serious conversations about the root causes of the disintegration of our once UNITED States. These conversations must be between the leaders of both political parties, special interest groups and others in authority positions at all levels of their organizations. All one needs to do is watch the videos of the burning of the American flag or the defacing and destruction of national monuments like the World War II and Korean War Memorials to know that what is going on is much deeper than culture, class, color, or creed issues. We have serious deficient character issues that are pervasive in our society. Ethical and moral values and good citizenship are traits that are lacking in an era of social media overload. Politicians are not exempt from character flaws. It may be time to draw upon the values based training that was introduced in the Marine Corps in 1996. Honor, Courage, and Commitment are the core values that are emphasized to the enlisted and officer personnel of the Corps upon initial entry training. America is in a character crisis.
Circling back to the start of this article, I feel that the Core Values emphasized by the Marine Corps and the Six Pillars of Character taught by the Character Counts Organization — Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship — were instilled in me and my grammar school and high school classmates at an early age by our parents and grandparents, teachers and coaches. Willie Thompson and I were blessed in that we came from a town that built winners….champions…..and good citizens of strong will and character. Respectable, hard working, patriotic and God loving people formed the fabric of our small mill village.
The Marine Corps Influence
After his military service, Willie went on to become a graduate of the prestigious Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC and later became a Pastor. He was appointed to the Human Affairs Committee by South Carolina Governor James Edwards in 1976 and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention that same year. He was again appointed to the Human Affairs Committee in 2003 and continues to serve as a Pastor in Greenville, SC. For me, well I stayed in the Marine Corps for nearly 22 years, retiring at the rank of Captain in 1992. Following my military service I continued with what I knew, I became a producer of documentaries about the United States Marine Corps. This led to being the producer/director of the Graduation Ceremony programs at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC. In 14 years we produced over 600 programs that included nearly 250,000 new Marines marching in front of our cameras. Today, my wife and I are the Executive Directors of the Beaufort International Film Festival and Co-Founders of the Beaufort Film Society in Beaufort, SC. We also served as Co-Producers of the new feature film, Stars Fell on Alabama, to be released nationwide in early 2021.