Cretin Class Trip: 1968

Apr 05

April 1968: We watched Washington burn, from a motel in Maryland


Forty-four years ago yesterday, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, on April 4, 1968. Three days later, a planeload of the whitest boys in America — and some of the most ignorant — landed in Washington, D.C. to begin an exciting senior class trip to Our Nation’s Capital and then, by bus, to New York City, where I would lose a battle with a bottle of Sloe gin at the Waldorf-Astoria and spend most of a night somersaulting down a hotel corridor and most of the next day wishing I were dead. I was 17, a senior from Cretin High School — yes, that was its name — in St. Paul, a boys’ Catholic military day school. We landed on a Sunday afternoon and went straight to our motel in Maryland instead of seeing any of the sights because of an unforeseen circumstance: Washington was on fire, thousands of Army troops were in the street, and Marine machine guns guarded the seats of power.

We had to wear a label.

We knew Latin. And could shoot rifles. I earned a marskman medal.

We might have been aware of these unfortunate facts — Washington, it turns out, had been on fire since Dr. King had been shot –  if we hadn’t been living in a Cone of Cluelessness that was Cretin, a school where religion classes had featured angry resistance to discussions of race and Civil Rights, and where parents’ meetings had come almost to brawls over whether Martin Luther King’s messages should be taught in school. By my senior year, I believe there were two black cadets in the sophomore class, a bold experiment the results of which had not yet been decided. But discussing racism was still almost a taboo, even in Religion.

I cannot remember any preflight words of caution or concern about the fact that we were flying into the heart of grief and anger that racked the black cities of America that spring. I was just looking forward to seeing the Washington Monument. We laid about the motel Sunday night and were confined there all day the next day: The riots had ended, but smoke still stained the sky on the near horizon and it was considered unsafe to enter the city. On Tuesday, we finally got a green light and took a Motor Coach into the city to visit Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot. The bus moved slowly, navigating debris and barricades through the scorched city. At one point, looking down from our tour bus as it moved slowly past a collapsed brick wall, we saw a body being pulled from beneath the rubble. “It’ll be worth it, Mom and Dad,” I remember telling my parents when I was trying to justify the $300 expense of the trip: “A  class trip to Washington will be a real education.” And, it was.

No, I didn't go to high school here. But this is where a lot of people wind up.

Here’s a brief passage from a history of those Days of Rage in D.C.:

Crowds of as many as 20,000 overwhelmed the District’s 3,100-member police force, and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey dispatched some 13,600 federal troops, including 1,750 federalized D.C. National Guard troops to assist them. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol and Army troops from the 3rd Infantry guarded the White House. At one point, on April 5, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House before rioters retreated. The occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. By the time the city was considered pacified on Sunday, April 8, twelve had been killed (mostly in burning homes), 1,097 injured, and over 6,100 arrested. Additionally, some 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores. Damages reached $27 million. This can be estimated to be equivalent to over $156 million today.