Black good samaritans, or would-be robbers?

Samuel C. Johnson,
Keezletown, VA.

I am a white man now 67 years of age. In May, 1968 (a month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) I had just completed basic training in the Army in North Carolina, and was on my way to my home area near Philadelphia. I got off the train in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station around midnight, and walked to the entrance ramp of the Schuylkill Expressway to hitch a ride home. I was in my dress khaki uniform and soon a car stopped to give me a ride. They were 4 or 5 young black men who gave me a friendly invitation to get in, which I did. After I got in, I was very conscious of the situation I was in — late at night, one white guy and 4 or 5 black guys — but I did not feel threatened. I told them my destination — King of Prussia, a white suburb of Philadelphia — and they immediately offered to take me where I was going. I was struck by their generosity and we had friendly conversation on the ride to my destination.

My destination was a friend’s house, where I knew I was as welcome as one of the family. While traveling, I had decided to spend the night at my white friends’ home, but I had not contacted them in advance about my plans and so they were not expecting me. When we pulled up at my friends’ house, the driver of the car told me he needed to get some water at the house for the leaky radiator of his car. Responding to my knock, a teenage daughter opened the door. Explaining the situation, I invited my black companions into the house to get some water. As they came in and passed through the living room, all the commotion woke up my friend’s parents. When the father saw several black men, strangers, in his living room he started yelling and went to get his gun. I was filling their jug with water and and when I heard that, I got them out of the house as fast as I could, bringing my time with them to a rude and unceremonious end. My friend’s parents, the father especially, chastised me for being so gullible and stupid for risking my own safety and theirs with these “niggers”. They believed that because these young men were black, they had criminal intent to rob the house.

I was young and inexperienced and thought that maybe my white friends were right. I didn’t know what to think. In the decades since I have often thought about that experience and how dangerous it was for these black good samaritans who gave me a ride and almost got shot by my white friend. And I have become aware of how common it is for white people to assume that black men are dangerous or criminal, and to respond inappropriately with “pre-emptive” violence. I often wish that I could somehow connect today with those young black men who gave me a ride then and nearly got shot. I wish that we could talk together about that experience and their perspective on it. If they have not been shot and are still alive.


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