Rock Hill recalls days of sadness, tension, fires

Martin Luter King Jr. was barely dead, and the word spread.

Rock Hill people saw the news on black-and-white TVs just like the separate black-and-white world they lived in. They heard on the radio, and people started calling on the telephone. On those streets occupied by black people, despondent grown men and women ran from house to house.

On Boyd Hill and Flint Hill, along Crawford Road and Ogden Road and branching off Saluda Street along the spines of the city's black section that Thursday night of April 4, 1968, people heard Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Murdered.

"Crying, an awful night and days after," said Juanita Toatley of Crawford Road. Toatley was the wife of one of Rock Hill's pre-eminent black preachers and civil rights fighters, a man who had been threatened himself that weekend and sat armed on the porch to defend himself and his family. Toatley and another preacher/civil rights activist, named Ivory, received threats saying "You're next," Toatley recalled.

White Rock Hill had to react, too. King had been labeled a communist, a rabble-rouser, had been in the news for a decade raising a stink about segregation. White Southerners with good hearts -- so many thousands in this city that had seen blacks go to jail for lunch counter equality and boycott buses and taxis, who were watching Jim Crow die a slow death anyway as schools were being integrated in a trickle -- still, had been taught that King was a villain.

Some whites knew better.

One was a young white lawyer who represented blacks and whites. He escaped from the cotton fields of Manning and the segregation of rural South Carolina that broke his heart as a kid, and he came to Rock Hill. The killing broke his heart anew.

"Devastated," said Tom McKinney. "The nonviolent leader of people who had been oppressed -- I saw it myself my whole life, man, I was the son of a Baptist preacher, and I saw it in church, heard that word that people called blacks in church and in courthouses and how they treated blacks -- was murdered. I saw the pain of people, black people, after King died. And it was like a Christ-like figure was dead. There is no other way to describe it."

The fire whistles began to sound that night in still-segregated Rock Hill, like fire alarms rang out in big cities and small towns around the country, and seemed to ring for days. Fires at a lumber yard, so many old vacant houses in the black sections of the city, rocks thrown. The hurt of a people brought to life in a fury.

"We had at least 15, 16 calls, one after another," said Herschel Carter, a firefighter in those days. "Mostly vacant houses, furniture in the street, We'd finish one call and rush to the next."

The mood in the black neighborhoods was tense, troubling, said retired firefighters such as David Lee, Ed Comer, Jerry Greene, Herschel Carter. Men who fought fires for all, no matter what those people looked like. Great men in those days whose actions showed guts.

Another firefighter on that truck with Carter, a trainee on the job all of three days, was named Ernest Settles. Settles was Rock Hill's first black firefighter and, after what he had to live through in Vietnam, now he was on the truck trying to save the city of his own people.

"I know we had so much to do, so many people out there who were hurt by what happened to Dr. King," Settles recalled.

Rock Hill's NAACP and other civil rights groups met hurriedly to try and quell any potential violence. Black principals at black high schools in Rock Hill, York, Clover, Rock Hill's two colleges for blacks, held assemblies on Friday. All -- raised in segregation -- urged calm.

Greatness again, under a different fire than firemen.

Preachers urged, congregations prayed and choirs sang for peace. Those voices were black and white.

White Rock Hill -- in charge in those days -- did act, and it showed the character of leadership of men who knew that a crisis would hurt all. There were city meetings and a proclamation denouncing the killing. A black preacher with the NAACP named Jones asked for a voluntary curfew of 7:30 p.m.

Ultimately, the old news clippings and the memories of the older people show that Rock Hill had no riots. What fires that burned, what rocks thrown, what windows smashed, police in 1968 attributed to racial tensions.

But no broken heads.

Just broken hearts.