Nineteen-sixty-six is the 50th year of my graduation from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the oldest historically black college and university in the United States. As my friend and fellow alumnus, Ed Hill, and I reminisced, I reminded him it was also the 50th year that a group of students set an ambush for the Ku Klux Klan, who, according to a white classmate, planned to invade our campus.
Out of curiosity, our classmate had attended a Klan rally in Rising Sun, Maryland. After the gathering, he returned to warn us that like at least once or twice in the past, they were going to “knock some n&*^%r heads at Lincoln,” before returning home.
The university was in an uproar. One of the few women on campus (Lincoln was 99% male) cried uncontrollably. Another group of classmates gathered in the chapel to pray. Some students left the grounds. Some just hid. Families who lived in “The Village”, a small neighborhood of black residents whose homes were next to the campus, gathered their belongings to leave. But a fellow schoolmate, who is a very successful businessman today, had other plans.
“Prewitt. I got guns from some of the older workers on campus. We’re going to surprise the Klan. You in?”
“Hell, yeah,” I responded without hesitation.
“Good. I’d hoped so. It’ll be easier to recruit the others.”
In the end, there were thirteen of us armed with pistols, shotguns, and rifles. I felt confident about the group of guys my friend had gathered because each vowed that if they took a weapon, they would use it. One of the members even wanted to beat up the classmates praying, but I explained that people handled crises differently. Not everybody was a fighter. Let them pray. We were going to need it.
We commandeered rooms on the second floor of McRary Hall. I suggested we place a boulder at the entrance and exit so when the invaders had all entered, we could block them from escaping. At least one of our members, a South African, made Molotov cocktails and placed them on the outside balcony of the Student Union building facing the entrance. We were ready; nervous as hell but ready.
When our lookout signaled that a caravan of cars were approaching the campus, a few of us hugged each other, then we took our places. As the first car drove parallel to the entrance, the lookout threw a rock and hit it. The car never stopped.
As they drove past with their confederate flags waving in the wind, we looked at each other, puzzled. A few were even disappointed. Five very tense minutes after the last car had passed, we stored the shotguns and rifles in a closet, kept the pistols, and gathered outside the dorm.
About ten minutes later, a black car pulled up, and two white guys got out. I’m glad they showed their badges as quickly as they did, because they were two seconds from getting iced.
“What’s going on here?” one of them asked.
“What the hell do you think is going on here?” one of our more militant members asked. I thought I was going to have to restrain him as I whispered, “You can’t jump the FBI.”
The two agents just shrugged at the question. After walking around the front of the campus for a few minutes, they got into their car and left.
What I didn’t learn until maybe ten years later was that one of our professors had called the law, because he’d heard we had weapons. It was evident that the FBI must have passed the information to the Klan based on their decision not to engage even after a rock dented one of their cars.
Ed also reminded me that the KKK beat up two African students who were at the Road House restaurant. I guess some of our foreign brothers didn’t believe the threat pertained to them.
As I read the paper the other day and applauded President Obama for pardoning so many inmates, I wondered if the Klan had come on campus, would I be one of the prisoners petitioning the president to set me free or would I have escaped the consequences of my actions like I was able to at least one other time in my life?
I’m glad I’ll never have to know.
(Colonel Bertram to Anthony Andrews in the novel A Long Way Back): “It’s funny how just a few minutes in your life can dictate your whole future.”
Anthony (Andrews) nodded. “How well I know, Colonel.”