Note: This story has been updated with additional information about Meredith Hunter’s gun.
It was supposed to be the Rolling Stones’ answer to Woodstock, a free concert 40 years ago this month at Altamont Speedway, in the San Francisco Bay area, tacked on to the end of their American tour. But it degenerated into violence, ending the life of Dixie Ward’s 18-year-old kid brother, Meredith Hunter.
Ward had warned her brother not to go to the concert that day: Meredith was African- and Native-American; his girlfriend, Patty Bredehoft, was white. “Blended couples had started to come into vogue in Berkeley,” says Ward, who was 28 at the time. “But in surrounding areas, it was not acceptable. My husband had a trucking business. He had taken me out [riding] and shown me where crosses had been burned.”
Meredith told his sister, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a gun.” But, Ward tells More.com, he insisted the gun wasn’t loaded. It will just "scare” any troublemakers, he said. Ward says she thought he was joking about bringing a gun. He wasn’t.
The stage at Altamont Speedway was frighteningly low; members of the Hells Angels were brought in to help keep order. The bikers ended up battering the crowd with pool cues, even managing to brain Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin.
The concert, including Hunter’s killing, was captured in Gimme Shelter, the concert film by documentarians Albert and David Maysles (who would go on to make Grey Gardens). In the film, Mick Jagger watches a loop of the killing in an editing room. Hunter has a gun—it is silhouetted against his date’s crocheted vest—and an Angel stabs him several times, after which the bikers reportedly threw him to the ground and kicked and beat him. “Don’t let him die, please!” Patty Bredehoft sobs to the paramedics. But it is too late.
The oldest of four children of a schizophrenic mother, Dixie often acted as the family caretaker. She remembers Meredith, who was 10 years younger, as an extremely bright and curious child. “When I did laundry I’d find insects and pollywogs in his pockets,” she says. He grew into a tall, cocky teenager. “He was 6 foot 4, and had a beautiful chocolate tan,” she says. Meredith was a flashy dresser with a closet full of brightly colored suits. His sister liked to kid him about them, especially the bottle-green one he can be seen wearing in Gimme Shelter. “I’d say, ‘What are you trying to be, a stoplight?’ ” she recalls teasing him.
According to the new book Let It Bleed: The Rolling Stones, Altamont and the End of the Sixties, by Stones tour photographer Ethan A. Russell with Gerard Van der Leun, Hunter, worried about all the fighting at the concert, went back to his car at one point during the show, retrieved the pistol from his trunk and tucked it into his waistband.
Ward was home listening to the radio when she heard a news report that “some erratic person” had attacked the band. She thought nothing of it until a neighbor came and told her Meredith was dead. She went with her mother to the coroner’s office. “When we came back my mother had a Christmas tree up.” Ward recalls. “She covered it with a sheet, and that was the end of our Christmases for a lifetime.”
Over the years there have been conflicting accounts of what happened that day at the foot of the stage. Ward knows now that her brother wasn’t joking about the gun. But she is convinced that it was unloaded, and that Meredith would have drawn it only to counter racist threats. (Sgt. Scott Dudek, of the Alameda County sheriff’s office, says that the gun was, in fact, loaded.) Of the reports that there was methamphetamine in Hunter’s system, she says, “I’m not aware of any drug use. I’d given him some antihistamines because he had such bad allergies that day."