Plebe Brutality and Civil Rights Confrontation

A second classman in our company, who had a reputation for brutality, descended on plebes like a grizzly bear on a sheep. As I ran back towards my room from baseball practice, he grabbed me by my shirt and shouted, “Into my room, Scum.” Three plebes with their heads up against metal lockers standing at attention, chins rigged in and looking straight ahead with fear in their eyes and facial expressions appeared. Nazi storm trooper songs played loudly on his stereo.“Watch closely dummies as my plebes use their heads as cannons. In battery…. heave,”he shouted. When he shouted “In battery…,” each plebe stuck his neck out as far as he could. When he yelled, “Heave,” they simultaneously slammed their heads back into the metal locker causing a loud BANG. “Get in there scumbag against the next locker, and you better make the loudest sound," he yelled in my face. "You’re a bunch of pussies. I’ll show you how everyone will hear your cannons blasting simultaneously.” He moved up to the plebe farthest away from me and placed the palm of his right hand on the plebe’s chin and screamed, “In battery” and paused allowing the plebe’s neck to extend,“Heave!”shoving his hand against the plebe’s chin slamming the victim's head into the locker much louder than before. This brutality violated regulations I had learned, but I did not know what to do having had  a miserable confrontation with another second classman that sent me to the hospital. He continued down the line using the palm of his hand to slam the next two plebes’ heads into the metal locker causing a thundering noise. Angry and indignant at the abuse he dished out to classmates against the rules, some power and voice inside convinced me to terminate the cruelty. He strutted in front of my face and started to move his hand toward my chin. “Sir, my father and brother graduated from the Academy and told me if any upper classman physically abused me by striking any part of my body, especially my head, he had committed a Class A conduct violation. They said I had the right and duty to defend myself. If you intend to slam my head against this locker I’ll defend myself and will turn you in for a violation of The Naval Academy Code of Conduct.” I hollered with fury on my face. He stared at me bewildered by an unexpected confrontation from a lowly plebe, but he knew my words correctly stated the rules and he could face serious discipline. I had challenged an upperclassman who could do me great harm for the rest of the year. He had a right to toughen up plebes, but not to assault them. I wanted to stop this before someone was bleeding and an inquiry would have to be held. This was taking it to the edge. For that brief moment I was determined to defend myself but shook with fear waiting for his response. “You’re all dismissed,” he said with a sigh like air going out of a helium balloon. In less than two seconds four plebes ran out of his room into Bancroft Hall and to our rooms. He never spoke to me again. How had my confidence helped me to threaten an Academy bully? I had tapped into a reservoir of power within to correct an injustice. The experience heightened my ability to assert myself and grow away from the shy sheep some considered me. My Presbyterian Church group met every Sunday from 10:30 AM until noon in Annapolis outside of the Naval Academy gate. A young minister led us in worship services. One Sunday he had a group of “freedom riders” address us regarding their commitment to social justice for Blacks subjected to discriminatory treatment in public accommodations in the South. The civil rights activists came from diverse backgrounds, including Blacks, Caucasians, and Hispanics. They ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-five. Blacks dominated the discussion. Beginning with a series of lively songs that spoke of the hardships of slavery, overcoming prejudice, and living in harmony with the white majority, they emphasized the non-violent nature of the civil rights movement despite abuse from police, the Ku Klux Klan, and agitators. Some hate groups had burned churches, homes, and even tortured and lynched Blacks and their supporters, but the protesters would not retaliate. Some explained how they joined with others to picket and boycott restaurants that refused to serve Blacks. One of their leaders had graduated from college and attended law school. He had a passion for the civil rights movement that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had started with a host of organizations and thousands of supporters. The law student asked all of us what we thought of the movement. These dedicated students fascinated and inspired me.  “I fully support your movement and wish you  success in the South," I said loudly refusing to remain stuck in a conservative mold just because I wore a military uniform. "However,the Navy prohibits us from participating in civil demonstrations.” As a plebe among a majority of upperclassmen making up our group of forty, I had acted boldly to demonstrate I agreed with their cause regardless of my status. They concluded their presentation sang a final rousing  song about freedom and banged tambourines. Our minister asked us to rise and give them a standing ovation. After they left, our minister asked me to talk with him privately as he dismissed our group to return to the Academy. “I can see you’re interested in participating in the civil rights movement. You don’t have to squander your active youth studying about the military, if you don’t want to be a naval officer. You can help this cause. Why don’t you resign and complete your studies elsewhere after you work for social justice now?” he pleaded. “I made a commitment to my father, family, and the Navy to graduate from the Naval Academy like my Dad and brother, did. That means a great deal to me. Following their example as a part of a legacy is something I want to do. My Dad frequently encouraged my brother and me to serve our country by experiencing the Academy education, discipline, moral teaching, and leadership that would help us no matter what profession we might choose after graduation.” “But the civil rights movement is here now. You have a chance to participate in making history and try to correct a grave injustice. You should follow your heart.” “It was a hard struggle for me to obtain an appointment. I want to complete my obligation. You mean well, but my word is a promise. Thanks for your encouragement and advice." Two upperclassmen from my company overheard this conversation and hurried in my direction as we marched to Bancroft Hall. Both from the deep South, who referred to Blacks in racist terms, walked behind me. One said, “Lavery, I‘m going to run you out of the Academy if you ever again express support for these communist civil rights groups.” My heart sped up, the adrenaline flowed, and anger filled me like gasoline on a fire as my eyes met his. “Yeah, Lavery, you better not support these groups that want to integrate America or I’ll see you are gone from the Academy,” said the other in a Southern accent. “I have the constitutional right to support the civil rights movement. We fight our enemies to preserve that freedom in case you have forgotten. The next time either of you threaten me for my beliefs, I’ll file a complaint against you for violating my constitutional rights,” I shouted  feeling my blood boil. Both of them muttered to each other inaudibly, but never bothered me again. Having defended myself from another attack designed to make me cower before blind authority, I knew of their opposition to anything that encouraged the Civil Rights Movement. They were products of a dying culture. Soon the next generation would replace their kind and show more understanding of all races I hoped. We continued marching to Bancroft Hall without further incident. In my room I sat down and pondered the emotional roller coaster of plebe year. On the one hand, I had exceptionally encouraging experiences that made me glad I left Duke to learn how a naval career would fit my aspirations. On the other, dark personalities lurked in uniform exhibiting racism, Neanderthal brutality, and ignorance, while others were high caliber leaders and admirable. Annapolis Jubilation Followed by Pitiless Revenge(click to expand)

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