Truth and Media

On June 24, 1968 (I know the date thanks to Wikipedia), I walked from the Capitol in Washington, DC to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) headquarters at 14th and U with a bunch of SCLC activists. Only three of us on the small march were white and I was just a sixteen-year-old kid.

By the way, I’ve never told the whole of this, I don’t think. The incident was both embarrassing and confusing–and I didn’t know how to present it. I am writing about it now because I am intrigued by the Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly kerfuffles recently (I have written on the topic here and here), situations which bring up questions of memory, honesty, and journalistic integrity. The question here is, “Does what we have witnessed make us better reporters? Does it improve our understanding?” Also, “Do we learn more from what we actually see and interpret for ourselves than from, say, photographs or news clips.” Or Wikipedia (I would have thought the incident I relate below happened earlier in June). This last comes up through O’Reilly’s claims about what he saw in Northern Ireland decades ago: “a Fox News spokesman said that O’Reilly was not an eyewitness to any bombings or injuries in Northern Ireland. Instead, he was shown photos of bombings by Protestant police officers.”

How much of my memory is influenced by what I saw on TV that night in 1968, or read in the newspaper the next day?

Anyhow, when we got to the SCLC headquarters, the streets were teeming with angry people. A group of us went into the drug store next door to get something to drink at the lunch counter. It was packed in there, too. We squeezed into the last available seats and I asked only for a glass of water–I had no money but was thirsty from the walk in the hot sun. As I was drinking, I noticed a young man instructing a kid, who came up to me and asked for money. I said, sorry, I haven’t any. He went back and the young man then came over and yelled, “He called my brother a n****r!” and slugged me in the face.

The SCLC people I was with–well trained–immediately surrounded me and hustled me out of there and into the headquarters next door–where the other two whites were sitting, talking with various volunteers. Someone gave me a towel to wipe the blood from my face and somebody else said they needed to get the three of us out of there, that the police were beginning to barricade the streets and that no one would be safe, particularly white people, if the police started anything. A phalanx was formed around us and we were escorted out the back door and past the forming lines of police.

I think I had my first smell of tear gas soon after.

Wikipedia says: “On the afternoon of June 24, police reported being hit with rocks near 14th St. & U St., an intersection central to April disturbances following the King assassination. Broken windows and a fire bomb were also reported. One hundred police in riot gear responded with tear gas. The area was sealed off, a curfew was declared, and Mayor Washington declared a state of emergency. 450 National Guardsman began patrolling the streets that night, and few incidents were reported (one man leaving a liquor store was wounded by a police officer’s bullet).”

My mother, when I got back to where we were staying farther out, on 16th St., asked why I was bleeding. I said I fell down.

All of us who write, or talk, might be a little more mindful that we start editing our stories even as they happen. I knew I couldn’t tell my parents the truth, not then, for I felt like a complete idiot and a victim, and I did not want to appear that way, certainly not to them. Our stories change due to audience, circumstances and age. Now, almost fifty years later, I can tell this rather trivial story without embarrassment.

But what about it should be believed–by me or anyone else?

Williams, and all “real” journalists, need to be asking this all the time, and thinking about our answers continually. O’Reilly, who just plays a journalist on TV, doesn’t really have to. But, for his own particular sense of integrity, maybe he should want to.

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