50 years ago, Marine returned to see York riots erupt
YORK, Pa. (AP) — It was 1968 and Joe Mincer, just a few years past returning to York after a stint in the Marine Corps, was wondering about his hometown.
His service had taken him to the Far East and this country’s deep South. He had seen the best of the country - the service, long integrated at the time, serving as a model for how the country could get past the legacy of its original sin, slavery.
And he had seen the worst, in the deep South, Albany, Georgia, to be specific, a place in which Jim Crow reigned and African-Americans remained second-class citizens, facing oppressive discrimination and being targeted by white police for abuse.
Just a few years after returning from the service, he was living in York when the city began to tear itself apart, the result of a variety of offenses, not the least of which was the brutality the black community felt at the hands of the police.
He was kind of surprised by it. He expected it to be different when he returned home.
“I thought York would be better,” he said as he sat on the porch of his York home on a recent hot morning. “It wasn’t.”
Like many returning servicemen, Joe had experienced a world that was quite different from the one in which he grew up.
Back then, a lot of African-American students in the city schools were encouraged - or in some instances steered - to join the armed forces as an alternative to seeking higher education. There were unintended consequences.
One of those young men was Bobby Simpson, now executive director of the Crispus Attucks Community Center. “A lot of guys went to the service, and when they got back, York was worse than before,” Simpson said. “And it pissed them off.”
That was among the contributing factors in the riots in 1968 - and in 1969. A large number of young men who had served their country - some with distinction in the war in Vietnam - were not going to take their hometown’s dismal treatment of African-Americans lying down. They were going to fight.
“Some of these guys had been victimized before going into the military,” said Jeff Kirkland, who has done extensive research into the history of York’s black community. “They had experienced racism and discrimination, and when they got back, they found things hadn’t changed. They were not ready to accept the status quo.”
It had been simmering for years. Fifty years ago, it boiled over.
A group of black youths gathered July 11, 1968, at Penn Park for a demonstration, a peaceful assembly called to protest the oppression and discrimination that was a fact of life in their community. The police viewed it as a disorderly gathering and skirmished with the protesters.
When a police car was struck with a rock, an officer fired a shot into the air. The next few days, police and black youth clashed in the streets. Rocks and bottles gave way to gunfire, as some of those leading the African-American community were former servicemen and were familiar with firearms and their use.
It ended, miraculously, with no casualties. But the tensions continued. In August, a white man named Chester Roach who lived above a meat market in South Penn Street, opened fire on a group of black youths with a shotgun for making, in his belief, too much noise. He wounded 10, touching off more unrest that resulted in the meat market being torched. On Sept. 21, a fight broke out after the William Penn-Cedar Crest football game at Small Field. Police broke it up by using canines to attack black youths. That fall, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in York, attracting a large crowd.
That was all prelude to the summer of 1969 and the deadly race riots. Peter Levy, a York College professor who has written a book about the civil unrest in the 1960s, titled, “The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America During the 1960s,” concluded that York “experienced the twenty-sixth most severe riot or urban revolt out of over 500 that occurred in the nation between 1963 and 1972. Adjusted for population, York’s revolt may have been the most severe of the era.”
Joe Mincer reflects on that and concludes that a lot of young black men who served in the military had seen enough.
“They had served their country, and when they got home, this is what they faced?” he said, shaking his head.
Joe Mincer was born in Bamberg, South Carolina, spending just the first month and a half there before his family migrated to York in search of steady and lucrative work in the town’s factories.
The family settled on Freys Avenue, a narrow street just east of downtown, near Broad Street. Joe went to York City Schools, attending the Aquilla Howard School on East King Street, an all-black school that housed six grades in four classrooms. When he was in the sixth grade, his mother fell ill and wound up in York Hospital, and Joe went to live with kin in Delta.
It was a vastly different world, rural and almost exclusively white, save for a few black tenant farmers. He was one of only three African-American students at Delta Elementary.
The family lived out in the country, and he and his brother had to walk about a mile to catch the school bus - which turned out to be fortunate, in a way. Walter Miller had a dairy farm across the road from the bus stop, and Joe and his brother worked there.
Joe earned $20 a month to drive the manure spreader and muck out the stalls as the cows were milked, the odor of the excrement often sending him running out of the barn to throw up. He also worked inside the silo, shoveling the corn meal as it flowed into the structure, yelling “Stop!” when the feed reached his chest so he could climb atop it.
He made friends, and it was a pretty good life. The people seemed friendly, and he had no problems. He recalled he had developed some strong abs through the physical labor, and his friends would challenge him, saying if they could make him grunt by punching him in the stomach, he’d have to give them 50 cents. If he didn’t make a sound, they had to fork over a quarter. He made a few dollars that way.
He moved back to York with about two months to go in the eighth grade, placed in a remedial class. He was reading books that he had already read in grade school, and when he mentioned it, the teacher told him he didn’t have much longer to go before entering high school. The teacher would sometimes leave the room, and Joe wound up running the class, helping the other kids with their reading.
At York High, he was enrolled in what was called the commercial curriculum, classes that offered instruction in office skills. He thought of attending college, but that seemed like a far-off dream. There was no way his family could afford it.
He was on the football team, a running back and outside linebacker, on a team that wasn’t very good. His senior year, the team won one game.
He graduated in 1960 and was kind of aimless for a while. He hung out with some guys who got into some trouble and who got him into some trouble. That convinced him he needed to get away from his hometown.
He and a buddy, Martin Doweary, decided to enlist in the service together. They went to the Air Force first, but that branch said it would be 90 days before they could join. The Army recruiter said it would take between 60 and 90 days. The Marine Corps recruiter told them 30 days, and they signed up, shipping out for basic training at Parris Island a month later.
They went in on the buddy system, guaranteed that they would serve together in the same unit for at least their first year. It turned out, at the end of basic training, that Martin was assigned to the infantry and Joe to ordnance supply at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a result of his clerical training at York High.
He agreed to a transfer to Japan. On the way, during a stop in Hawaii, his commanding officer told him his orders had changed and he would be going to Okinawa.
At that time, American involvement in Vietnam was just starting to heat up. His unit returned from winter training to learn that they were being shipped out. They weren’t told where they were going. It was top secret. They all thought they were going to ’Nam.
They sailed on a troop ship to the coast off Laos. They expected to make landing. But then, for reasons he’s not sure about, the boat turned back and returned to Okinawa. Some of the guys on the boat were upset; they wanted to get into combat. Joe wasn’t crazy about the idea. “If we were told to go, I was ready to do my job to the best of my ability,” he said. “But they sent us back.”
Up until then, his experience in the service was good. At that point, the armed services had been integrated for 15 or 16 years, and black Marines were treated just like white Marines. There is something about the military, particularly the Marines, that fosters that kind of atmosphere. When your life depends on the guy next to you, as it might one day, it doesn’t matter whether that guy is black or white - or green, for that matter. All that matters is that he is a soldier.
Joe never did serve in Vietnam. When he returned to Okinawa, he got word his mother was sick and had two weeks to live. He was granted emergency leave and came home. His mother hung on for another 11 months, and Joe wound up transferred to the Marine Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina.
There, he learned that a white Marine who had lower scores on evaluations than Joe had been awarded a promotion. Joe believed the promotion should be his, and he went to the first sergeant and lodged a complaint, saying he would request a “mast,” a hearing, with the commandant of the Marines if he was denied promotion.
He got the promotion.
And a transfer to Albany, in southwest Georgia, the deepest of the deep South.
Where he got a taste of southern hospitality.
The town had a history. In 1961, a coalition of local black leaders and ministers organized protests against what was, essentially, American apartheid, the Jim Crow laws that stripped African-Americans of basic rights. The protests, which drew the attention and participation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were met with heavy opposition.
King was arrested and jailed twice in Albany. The protests were not successful, but they did draw attention to the moral bankruptcy of Jim Crow and those who sought to enforce it. (For example, the local newspaper then referred to African-Americans using the N-word in supposedly fair and balanced news stories.)
Joe was concerned, but not too worried. He was a Marine, serving his country. Certainly, white folks could see past his skin color and see that he was just an American.
There were a number of documented cases in which southern law enforcement targeted African-Americans. Joe said he experienced it himself. One night, he and a couple of buddies were driving through town when they approached a stoplight. A white cop pulled them over before they even got to the light and ticketed the driver for running the light. When the driver protested, saying he hadn’t even gotten to the intersection when the cop pulled him over, the cop said the town had to collect fines to pay for the trouble stirred up by a man he called “Martin Luther Coon.”
Another time, Joe said, a white woman who had been beaten by her husband reported that it was two black men who had beaten her and tried to rape her, saying they had come from the Marine base. The Klan gathered and prepared to exact the kind of twisted justice served at the end of a rope. The CO at the base confiscated the weapons of all of the black Marines, fearing a shoot-out. Joe recalled that some of his white comrades offered their weapons so the black soldiers could defend themselves. The Klan backed down.
Then there was the time Joe and two buddies went off the base to meet some women. On the way back, riding in a white Cadillac owned by a sergeant from the base, they got into a fender bender with a white motorist and soon several police cars converged on them, the cops exiting their cruisers with their guns drawn.
The cops found a bottle of whiskey in the car and accused the driver of drunken driving. The driver was sober, but the cops insisted that he was drunk and cuffed him, but not before he could hand the keys to the other guy. One of the cops said something to the guy and, not understanding, the guy said, “Huh?”
The guy was arrested for resisting arrest. Joe started to say something, but then he was put under arrest.
The cops gave them a choice - pay the fines, which would have totaled $1,450 - or hand over whatever money they had, save $25 so they could get back to their base, and they’d be free to go. They opted to do that.
Joe was stunned. “Because I left at 18, I never really had any problems that bad in York,” he said. “It was a different experience.”
And then he returned home. He expected things to be different in his hometown.
But he soon learned that York wasn’t much better than Albany. In some ways, it was worse.
He was able to get a job at the now-defunct Bendix plant on East Market Street. But many returning black veterans had a hard time finding work or decent housing. And then there was the York City Police Department, which was run in the manner of Bull Connor, the notoriously racist commissioner for public safety in Birmingham, Ala., who used canine patrols and fire hoses to break up civil rights protests.
Joe said he witnessed it firsthand, once seeing the police arrive on his street, led by a notoriously racist cop who had a rep in the black community for his brutality, to arrest one of his neighbors for an unknown offense. One of the men put his hands out to be cuffed, and the cop reached into his pocket for his blackjack and bludgeoned the young man. Another cop released a dog, but in an ironic twist, the dog went after the cop, biting his leg, since he had been the aggressor in the confrontation. Another irony: Joe’s stepfather had a German shepherd named Roscoe that he sold to the police department for $50 a few years before. Many of the dogs the police deployed against the black community were sired by Roscoe.
There were tales of young black men being taken into custody and instead of being driven to the police station, they were taken to the parking lot behind Small Field and beaten.
Not all of the cops were bad people, or racists, Joe recalled. But enough of them were to create a besieged atmosphere - a sense that the black community was under the rule of an occupying force.
“I was expecting to see something different when I came home,” Joe said. “In some ways, it was worse than Albany.”
In early July 1968, Joe and his family were in Rhode Island visiting his brother when his brother asked him, “What’s going on in York?” The riots had made the news.
Joe returned home to find the city under siege.
He recalled police pointing rifles at his car as he tried to give a cousin a ride home to the Parkway projects, the police officer taking aim at his wife and infant daughter in the front seat. He thought the cop was going to shoot, but another cop stopped him, recognizing Joe and vouching for him.
The ’68 riots were a precursor. There were meetings of the state Human Relations Commission that resulted in recommendations to reform the police department and to address discrimination in housing and employment.
Nothing was done.
A year later, in 1969, it happened again, the streets becoming a battleground, this time with fatal results for York City Police Officer Henry Schaad and a black minister’s daughter, Lillie Belle Allen.
Now 76 and retired from Caterpillar, Joe reflects on his experience in the service and what it was like to come home after serving his country and witnessing the violence perpetrated against his community.
“Things were different in the service,” he said. “Then, you get home and see nothing’s changed here. Or it got worse. What did they expect to happen?”
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com