State News photojournalist looks back on ’68 unrest

Delaware National Guard soldiers and Delaware State Police troopers with guns descend on the campus of Delaware State College in May 1968. The photo, taken by then-Delaware State News staff photographer Gary Emeigh, shows the car he had borrowed to get to college that day. (Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Gary Emeigh was focused in on a Wilmington Police officer, backed up tight to a wall and holding a rifle close to his chest.

This was in the early morning hours of April 9, 1968, in Wilmington. Like many cities across the country, there was rioting, looting and violence erupting in the days following the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Emeigh was there taking photos for the Delaware State News. He was clicking away, without a flash, as he approached the officer.

“I was shooting available light and I didn’t want to blind him or bother anybody,” said Mr. Emeigh. “He kept saying something to me and I said, ‘I can’t hear you. What are you saying?’ I walked in closer and said, ‘I can’t hear you, what did you say?’

“He said, ‘Get down, there’s a sniper.’”

At 20 years old, he wasn’t worried about getting caught up in anything.

“I was just oblivious to everything,” he said.

Mr. Emeigh, then just 20 years old, was up for the chase and challenge of breaking news.

That was the first of two nights of rioting in Wilmington.

He and then-reporter Tim Blagg drove into the city, not knowing what was going on. Mr. Emeigh heard over and over on the police scanner that troopers from Downstate were heading to Wilmington.

The second night, Mr. Emeigh said he took the Delaware State News circulation van. “They were setting cars on fire and I didn’t want one of them to be mine,” he said.

Around the city, he was watching and shooting photos as people broke windows, dashed from building to building, and ransacked stores.

Liquor stores, in particular, were getting hit hard. Mr. Emeigh said he was crouched near one about to get a shot of someone with his arms loaded with booze when a National Guard soldier rushed up and caused him to miss the shot.

“They’re going to know I’m from the media and no one will bother me, I thought,” he said. “And no one did.

“Well, except for the second night when I really pressed my luck,” he said. “We were on a hill and I saw this whole line of National Guardsmen walking up, coming from my left side. I said, ‘That’ll make a good picture. I pulled the van into the middle of the intersection and stopped. There was no traffic because there was a curfew. Nobody else was on the road.

“And they’re all marching up and I could see them silhouetted. I lifted up my camera and went … flash. They hit the ground. I thought, ‘uh-oh.’ I got pulled out of the van and had this National Guard lieutenant screaming at me.

“He said, ‘You almost got shot.’”

After some apologies and promises to get out of the city, Mr. Emeigh went on his way – around the next block to get more photos.

***

The year 1968 was one of racial tensions in Delaware, and then-governor Charles L. Terry Jr. faced much of it with police and military might.

A Wilmington police officer, using a brick wall for protection from sniper fire, was photographed by Gary Emeigh during the April 1968 riots in Wilmington. As he was taking the photo, Mr. Emeigh did not realize the officer was trying to tell him there was a sniper and he needed to get out of harm’s way. (Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

It followed a year in which National Guardsman were positioned in Harrington and Milford out of fear there would be disturbances at the Delaware State Fair.

In March 1968, there was a tense March night in Legislative Hall when people gathered to protest for more rights for welfare recipients. Some of the demonstrators were forcefully removed by state troopers.

After Dr. King’s assassination, Gov. Terry ordered the National Guard and State Police to Wilmington. The military presence lasted more than nine months, the longest in the nation. By some historical accounts, it was the longest military occupation in an American city since the Civil War.

A day after the riots were quelled, Gov. Terry told the Delaware State News he would keep the National Guard there “until I feel the people of Wilmington have the proper security I feel they deserve.”

“All is possible from the fountainhead of law and order,” he told the newspaper, “but only chaos and destruction and grief will come if we ignore our better nature and let base instincts replace sound judgment and our natural love and concern for each other.”

Gov. Terry’s decision to keep the guard there went against the wishes of Wilmington Mayor John Babiarz and became an election issue in 1968. Gov. Terry didn’t win another term.

The new governor, Russell Peterson, ended the guard presence in Wilmington shortly after taking office in 1969. Later that year, he signed a Fair Housing bill that forbid discrimination on the basis of race.

***

Mr. Emeigh was on the scene of one 1968’s other tense moments.

It was May 1968 on the Delaware State College campus when students disrupted a ceremony to dedicate a student center. Chants of “student power” drowned Gov. Terry’s attempts to speak and he gave up.

State police and National Guardsmen were called in to remove the unruly students from the campus.

At the time, Mr. Emeigh was a student at Delaware State College. He had borrowed a friend’s car to get to school and it ended up in one of the memorable photos.

“There were state police and National Guardsmen with machine guns coming on to the campus,” he said. “They were using the car I was driving as a barricade.

“I showed him the picture the next day and he said, ‘Where in the hell were you?’”

***

Mr. Emeigh, who currently freelances for the Delaware State News, got his start in newspapers in 1965 at the paper, working under founding editor Jack Smyth.

The morning after the first night of Wilmington riots, Mr. Emeigh went directly back to the office to process his film.

Once finished, he put his head down on his desk and fell asleep until staff started to arrive.

“I could hear all the people starting to talk in the newsroom and the teletype clicking away,” Mr. Emeigh said. “Jack came by and asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘Yea, I’m fine.’ He said, ‘Did you hear what happened in Wilmington last night?’”

Mr. Emeigh reenacted how he silently reached out his arm and handed over his prints.

“He was just amazed,” said Mr. Emeigh. “I gave him a stack of about 20 pictures. He gave me a $100 bonus and that was a big deal at the time. It shocked Jack. He never thought I’d be there. I just lived and breathed this job.”

Mr. Emeigh, who left newspapers for a career in aviation in 1973, went back to the Delaware State News in 1976 before moving on to the upstate daily in 1988.

He is currently finishing up a book — “The Ink In My Blood” — that he plans to release later this year.

The title comes from a conversation he had at the age of 21 with then-Delaware State News managing editor Joe Smyth.

“I went into Joe’s office and told him I was going to quit,” he said. “He said, ‘You don’t want to do that. You’ve got ink your blood. He said, you were made for this job.’”

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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