by Henry Lane Hull
For some of us the opportunity to witness firsthand a historic event is a rare experience.
For John Cunningham that experience came at an early stage in his professional career. He was a native of Alexandria, and after graduating from George Washington High School he served in the U.S. Army for two years, then joined the National Capital Park Police. For 20 years he was a mounted police officer patrolling the national monuments along the Mall and through Rock Creek Park.
Shortly after joining the Park Police, John was assigned the most visible duty of his career. The time was the summer of 1963, and as the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding, plans were afoot for a great rally on the Mall, with addresses from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the principal one of which was to be delivered by The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Today we know it as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the age of 21, new to the police force, John was given the task of standing in uniform next to Martin Luther King to afford him protection in the event of violence ensuing. Five years previously, King had been stabbed with a letter opener while signing copies of his book on the Montgomery Bus Boycott at a gathering in Harlem. Having survived that attack, the Park Police wanted to assure his safety in the far larger milieu of the Mall.
Four years ago during the retrospective coverage of the Mall rally, all of the television networks presented copious scenes and interviews with participants who were still alive, but nowhere, save for the original footage itself, were there pictures of John, who had stood as a young officer immediately by King’s side, nor was he interviewed.
John did not initiate talk of his historical experiences, but willingly described what he had seen and done when asked. Once when we were discussing the rally, I asked him what his dominant memory was of that day when he truly was a witness to history. He replied, speaking of King, “He really could give a great speech.”
In the years that followed, John served during the Vietnam War protests on the Mall, where he encountered hostility and a level of violence that fortunately had not occurred in 1963. He spoke of the time when a protester hit his horse with a stick and of the difficulty of blending the rights of free speech with civil order.
John gave 20 years to the Park Police, then he retired. I asked him where he went riding after he stepped down from his duties. He replied that he did not ride. The day he retired he rode into the stable, dismounted, brushed down his horse and left. He never touched a horse again.
In retirement he pursued his lifelong interest in automobiles, working in Northern Virginia, prior to retiring a second time when he and his wife, Sonia, built a home on land inherited from his father at Topping, next to the home his brother, Bill, had built. He enjoyed helping Bill in his antiques business, especially when dealing with vintage cars.
John was a master at handling other people’s crises and turmoil. Fifteen years ago I saw him speaking with a lady who was quite distraught about her situation, having to move and being uncertain of her future. After 20 minutes, she remarked, “I feel so much better after talking to you.”
He could put people at ease merely by being in his presence. He told me that people were like horses and if you knew what they wanted or needed, no problem should exist. He said that for the duration of his police service he had no trouble with any horse because he made the horse understand that he would receive a reward for good behavior. He said people were the same.
Over the last two years John underwent a long and severe decline in his health and last month he died in his home at Topping. With him died a vast resource of knowledge and wisdom about life and how to live it well and happily. He was the quintessential gentleman, always a delight and treasure to know, one whose company was perpetually memorable.
John Wayne Cunningham, March 22, 1942 – September 22, 2017. R.I.P.