By Christine Sampson
It’s safe to say Terrance Fiore had a front-row seat as history unfolded during the Civil Rights movement. The Water Mill resident was a 2nd Lieutenant with the U.S. Army’s 503rd Military Police Battalion from 1964 to 1966, having joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a student at Hofstra University. He was called to protect protesters and students in Mississippi and Alabama as well as protect Martin Luther King Jr. and 12,000 others during the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. Mr. Fiore will speak about his experiences on Friday, January 19, at 5:30 p.m. at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, and he gave The Sag Harbor Express a preview of his talk.
What did the political and social climate feel like during the time you were in the Army?
I’m speaking personally, but I think I can speak for a lot of people. You felt you were a part of something bigger than yourself. The Berlin wall went up right before that. You had those famous images of the checkpoints in Berlin. … It was the height of the Cold War. We had beaten Hitler and the Japanese and we stood for the American values. That sounds corny and old fashioned now, but it was an era where you believed that our system was better. It’s not hard to believe you’re better than Hitler or Stalin. Also, there was the Civil Rights movement. It was an idealistic movement and I was fortunate to have my military experience dovetail with the idea that we are the good guys, and have it dovetail with a military police battalion that was deeply involved in the early ‘60s in the Civil Rights movement. We were a specialized riot control unit, and as I say in my talk, now it looks like today every small-town police department has a SWAT team, but back then we were the only game in town. … I’m extremely fortunate that I was there for that very brief moment when our work dovetailed with making progress on social justice in this country and protecting those young people.
What is the most powerful memory you have of your time in the U.S. Army’s 503rd Military Police Battalion?
I’ll give you two. At the end of the march, on Thursday afternoon, they marched to the foot of Dexter Avenue in front of the [Montgomery] capitol grounds. There were a whole bunch of speakers. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke last. And the crowd was dismissed and they were told leave early because they didn’t want anybody around after dark. When they were marching out, one marcher turned and looked at me and said, ‘Thank you, lieutenant.’ I replied, ‘My pleasure.’ The other one was when we were patrolling the city of Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1966. We were outside a polling place and people were thanking us. The Socialists had lost in a fair election. Before that, they had to start an armed insurrection in order to get a shot at implementing change.
What was the hardest part of the work you were called to do back then?
We had a couple of different jobs. We were the police department for Fort Bragg, which had maybe 15,000 to 20,000 people. So that was a day-to-day kind of job. There were the war games pretty much all over South Carolina, so I had my first exposure to segregation. By then the Army was integrated, so dealing with racism and trying to insulate the African American troops from the overt legal racist practices down there was an eye opener and an issue. Restaurants were segregated. We had to work out how to get a black guy a cup of coffee in a previously all-white restaurant. The answer was if a black soldier came into the restaurant with a while soldier, that would be accepted. If there was one thing that was big in the south, it was that sense of patriotism, that sense of pride in the military. It was stark. You’ve got to keep people together and working as a team. It’s called unit integrity.
If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
No. I chose the military police corps because I knew I would probably be behind a desk for the rest of my life. I got a lot of responsibility as a brand new college graduate. This was a chance to be a little bit a part of history, so absolutely not, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Mr. Fiore’s talk is free and all are welcome to attend. Temple Adas Israel is located at Elizabeth Street and Atlantic Avenue in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit TempleAdasIsrael.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (631) 725-0904.