Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Amid the violence, a lesson

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Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
Nathaniel Slayton’s family was moving during the riots in 1968. The path his father took changed the path of the son’s life.
Nathaniel Slayton wasn’t sure why his father decided to drive down H Street that day in 1968, but he suspects it may have had something to do with the riots.

Slayton, 17 at the time, and his family were moving from Southeast to Northwest Washington.

Taking Interstate 295 to New York Avenue may have been an easier route to their new home, said Slayton, who now lives in Cabin John. But instead, his father got off at Benning Road, and the car, packed with the family’s belongings, drove slowly past people looting and smashing windows in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

When he speaks of the day, Slayton recalls fires, smoke, confusion, people looting grocery stores for food and throwing bricks, rocks and bottles. He also recalls the lessons his father taught him about what was happening around them.

‘‘He did talk about the people out there, and how they were caught up in the rage of the group, and not necessarily the rage of what had happened,” said Slayton, 56.

Although Slayton said his father was not a political person, he suspects the unusual route that day may have been to teach his son a valuable lesson about the dangers of a mob mentality.

‘‘He talked to me about if I ever found myself in a situation like that, that I had to think for myself rather than letting the group think for me,” Slayton said.

The lesson had an impact. Slayton said he decided to join the Coast Guard to avoid the Vietnam War — where he feared the ‘‘madness of the mob” played an all-too-significant role. The riots caused him to think about the consequences of violence against those who had little to do with the heart of the conflict, Slayton said. Today he works as a veterans counselor.

And yet, Slayton recalls a much different feeling after the riots were over — a sense of hope that, even in the wake of King’s assassination, the civil rights movement could bring change.

‘‘There was an overwhelming sense of grief among us, but we were still able to stand tall within that grief,” Slayton said.

His, he said, was the ‘‘hopeful generation” — a group of people who tried to establish a better future for their children. Slayton, who moved to Montgomery County in 1993, carries the lessons of the time period with him and hopes to impart them to his own children.