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For Cummings, MLK's Death and Subsequent Riots Were a 'Social Awakening'

He remembers that day in 1968 vividly.

Harold "Hal" Cummings was a young law student in 1968 and witnessed the rioting after Martin Luther King's death. Photo Credit: Chris Dehnel
Harold "Hal" Cummings was a young law student in 1968 and witnessed the rioting after Martin Luther King's death. Photo Credit: Chris Dehnel

Before he was the town attorney in Vernon and the head of the town's Republican party …

And before he was an honored businessman and practicing lawyer in South Windsor … 

And before he rose from the ranks of lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in the Army, the National Guard and the Army Reserve …

Harold "Hal" Cummings was in Washington on April 4, 1968.

He said it was the day of his "social awakening."

Cummings was a first-year law student at Georgetown. His fiancee and now wife, Isabelle, was an undergraduate student on the main campus. He was in class. It was a warm day and the windows were open, he said. He began hearing sirens, first heading one way, then the other.

"The dean walks in. He says that Martin Luther King had just been shot, there are riots all over the city, classes are canceled and spring break starts right now," Cummings said in an interview this week. "He then told us to get our belongings and leave the city.

"That ended the class right there, but it was an education for a white farm boy from South Windsor. The law school was on the edge of the Northeast district, which had a heavy minority population and there was rioting there."

Cummings said he gathered his things and went to the main campus to get Isabelle. But before heading back to Connecticut, they found a vantage point to see what exactly was happening.

"We got her gear and went to the roof of her dorm," Cummings said. "It was high up, overlooking the entire city, and we could see great black clouds of smoke billowing up — primarily from the Northeast district.

"It was clear that Washington was burning."

Cummings said he then looked at the Key Bridge, named after the Star Spangled Banner composer, and coming from Arlington, the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, were troops.

"The police were overwhelmed and had to pull back, hence the sirens going in both directions earlier," Cummings said. "And we could see coming from Arlington deuce-and-a-half trucks and armored personnel carriers. The 82nd Airborne had been activated earlier in the day in North Carolina and was heading into the city to protect the public buildings. It had to back up the militia.

"Here I am in the capital of the most powerful country in the world. In one moment I am in law school learning about law, social order and procedure, and then, in a matter of a couple of hours, it's martial law. We went from a regular, orderly society to rioting and chaos."

Cummings said on the trip back to Connecticut, he realized he had "a social awakening."

Cummings said the images were still with him three years later and throughout a military career that spanned more than two decades. He spent two years in the Army in Vietnam beginning in 1972. When he came back, Cummings visited the National Guard station in Vernon to fill out an additional two-year hitch and wound up staying 15 years.

He then spent six years in the Army Reserve and retired a lieutenant colonel. Much of the training revolved around "civil disobedience and riot control," he said. 

"The riots showed me how fragile society can be," Cummings continued. "The riots were a realization that reinforced the idea that we have to have a certain amount of protection — sometimes to protect us from ourselves. The fact of the matter is that we live in a cocoon — the notion that, 'It will always be this way.' But I say we can be the same way now as the people were in 1968 and that pent-up tensions and frustrations can cause a tipping point."

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