“The CBS eye,” the cameraman stated matter-of-factly “….makes a helluva target, don’t it?” The Channel 15 news car with its CBS eye painted on the sides was being pelted with beer bottles as we drove toward a demonstration in Lancaster’s southeast neighborhood. It was April 4th, 1968 and Americans, especially black Americans, were horrified at the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. And many were more than horrified – they were angry.
I was a senior in college at Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, PA. The previous school year, I had been the Lancaster News anchor and reporter for Lebanon, PA based WLYH-TV – channel 15. My friend and classmate Barry (not his real name) now had that position. My part time job in my last year in school was as Lancaster reporter for regional rocker WSBA Radio in York. But I resigned that position a week before the assassination so I could study for final exams.
The news director at WSBA called me shortly after the assassination hit the airwaves. A crowd was gathering in the southeast in Lancaster. Would I please cover it? I was a 21 year old kid, and I was deeply drawn to news. In fact, I couldn’t say no. I gathered a up a portable reel-to-reel recorder from the college radio station (I was that station’s general manager in my senior year), called my friend Barry at the TV station and he and his cameraman picked me up so we could drive to the gathering crowd together. As we approached the area of the demonstration, flying objects started hitting the car. We turned a corner, found a quieter place to park the car and stepped out. I had my recorder hanging from my shoulder, with a microphone in hand, the cameraman had his sound camera, battery belt and battery powered lights, and Barry was holding a microphone too.
As we turned the corner we saw a crowd gathered about a block away. A guy was standing in the bed of a pickup truck shouting through a powered megaphone. I knew that guy. It was Justin (not his real name). Justin was a New Yorker like me. But he was not a New Yorker like me. He was black and he lived in Harlem. I am white and lived in an upper middle class neighborhood of a decidedly white section of Queens. On school breaks and occasional weekends, I would drive Justin back to Harlem on my way home. Justin had a phenomenal, powerful voice, not unlike James Earl Jones. He would lecture me on race relations. He was deeply involved in black community affairs in Lancaster too. He once told me “the dumbest thing the white man ever did was allow the black man an education.” It was the age of black power and to be honest, some of Justin’s rhetoric frightened me.
As we began to approach the crowd I tried to make out what Justin was saying through his megaphone, but I couldn’t. Just then, the cameraman, an experienced guy who’d moved back to his home in Lancaster after years at NBC in New York, said “Here we go.” He turned on the lights. At once, the crowd stopped listening to Justin and turned towards the lights. Some started running towards us. Others shouted “I have a statement…” and some hurled epithets at three white guys who were suddenly very, very scared. We turned at once and ran back to the news car. The crowd followed. We literally dove into the vehicle, and while the cameraman fumbled with the keys, hands began to rock the car. Another pair of hands reached into the back seat through the open window and grabbed a camera. I grabbed it back. He grabbed it again. I grabbed it back and the car pulled away. We were safe! About a block down the road another car sped out of an ally and blocked our path. “They got us” the cameraman screamed. Two plainclothes Pennsylvania State Troopers exited that vehicle. “Are you guys OK?” they asked, flashing their badges. “OK” I stuttered, “OK” I shouted. “You saw what was happening and didn’t come to help us?” I was incredulous.
“Are you kidding?” the cop said. “You got yourselves into that mess.” It was only then that it dawned on me we’d done something improper. I told myself we were just doing our jobs. But, something else had happened there beyond my comprehension at the time.
The TV crew drove me back to the college where I returned the recorder to the radio station. I sat at my desk there going over the frightening moments of our encounter with the crowd. And then the phone rang. It was Justin. “Do you know what you did?” he asked. “I was just doing my job.” I responded. “No, you started a riot. You are responsible for starting a riot. I was trying to calm that crowd down when you turned on those lights and incited a riot.” In fact, that same crowd ran into downtown Lancaster, broke windows in the city’s main business section, looted stores and more. There were injuries, arrests, and lives ruined. “You have to answer for what you’ve done” Justin said angrily. And I left the campus immediately. I stayed at my brother’s house a few miles away, and only returned to campus for classes and exams for the few remaining weeks of the school year. I never saw or heard from Justin again.
So what did we do? We made the same mistake news crews from all over the world made a few months later at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. We turned on the lights. In Chicago, where Abby Hoffman’s Yippies and so many others gathered to protest the war in Vietnam, a confrontation between police and protesters would take place every time a crew turned on the lights. CBS President Frank Stanton commissioned a study that resulted in rules journalists followed for decades afterwards. No lights in the midst of civil unrest. The lights altered the story. The lights created the event. We started a riot.
As I was contemplating writing this story, I decided to find Justin. I am pleased to report that he became a hugely successful professor of sociology. He is currently called “Professor Emeritus” in California. He is a nationally recognized expert on race relations, and the author of many books and articles on the subject. I pointed out to him that no white man ever ‘allowed’ him an education. He clearly did that on his own.