Riot redux: 2015 mirrored 1968 unrest
By Zenitha Prince, From the Afro-American Newspaper
For elders within Baltimore’s Black community, the recent uprising after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray was like a flashback to the riots that erupted in April 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Both were birthed from tragic events involving the deaths of an African-American man and both represented the underlying rage and frustration present in the African-American community caused by years of not just benign neglect but [also] what appears to be intentional neglect caused by racism,” said Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church and co-chairman emeritus of the advocacy group, Baltimoreans United in Leadership (BUILD).
Both riots occurred after months of protest by African-American communities across the nation.
In the summer of 1967, smoke hovered over cities such as Detroit, Newark and Chicago as Black Americans expressed frustration over the lack of social and economic progress—and the redirection of federal focus and funding from the War on Poverty to the Vietnam War—in the form of riots. Baltimore had largely kept its cool until the assassination of Dr. King on the balcony of a Memphis, Tenn., hotel on April 4, 1968 ignited the smoldering anger that had been, until then, contained.
“The death of King in 1968 signaled for many in the African-American community that the dwindling hope—after the  March on Washington saw little response from the federal government to rectify conditions in the African-American community—that hope was finally gone,” said Bishop Miles, who was an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University in 1968.
Black militant leader Stokely Carmichael had warned in an April 5, 1968 interview of the violence King’s murder would spawn.
“When white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us,” he said. “The rebellions that have been occurring around this country is just light stuff compared to what’s about to happen. We have to retaliate for the deaths of our leaders. The executions of those debts will not be in the courtroom, they will be in the streets of America.
“[When] white America killed Dr. King last night. She made it a whole lot easier for a whole lot of Black people today. There no longer needs to be intellectual discussions, Black people know that they have to get guns. White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown and/or Stokely Carmichael, but when she killed Dr. King, she lost.”
Within two days of King’s death, Baltimore had joined the almost 100 cities across the nation where riots had erupted. Driven by frustrations over limited job and housing opportunities, and further fuelled by resentment of merchants who practiced usury and charged higher prices for lower-quality goods, fire bombers struck the first major blow in the Gay Street commercial corridor on the night of April 6.
“The looting and burning swept eastward from Gay St. to Milton Ave., and spread in crazy-quilt patterns across the inner city,” reported the AFRO in its April 13, 1968 edition. “Targets of youthful bombers were commercial establishments – bars, cut rate liquor stores, appliances stores, pawn shops and the like.”
“Smoke and fire could be seen and smelled all over the city of Baltimore—particularly in Black neighborhoods,” the late Rev. Marion C. Bascom, a former bastion of Black Baltimore leadership, recalled in a Jan. 13, 2007 AFRO retrospective article on the riots. “This happened with a spontaneity that’s unbelievable: smoke—the terrible odor of it; people running and screaming in the streets; people breaking down and breaking into institutions or stores that had mistreated them and poor-priced them.”
Vandalism, looting and arson were reported on Monument and Aisquith streets, and on Greenmount Avenue and Harford Road in East Baltimore. On the West side, outbreaks were mainly concentrated along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, but stores along Fulton Avenue and on Whitelock Street were also vandalized and looted.
Pastors, community activists and political leaders such as Clarence and Parren Mitchell walked the streets trying to calm protestors. And there were unexpected voices, like that of then-notorious drug kingpin Melvin Williams.
“Little Melvin (Williams) had talked to some of the guys to come together,” Clarence Mitchell recalled in an April 2008 AFRO article. “The hustlers of the day came from East Baltimore, they came from South Baltimore and they came from West Baltimore and they made appeals to the communities that they came from to stop the riots. The next day the riots had stopped.”
After four days of rioting, four people had been killed, 700 injured; there had been more than 600 fires, about 1,000 businesses had been looted or burned and 5,800 people had been arrested, according to an AFRO recounting.
The seeds of disillusionment, hurt and frustration that gave birth to the ’68 riots were in many ways responsible for the unrest that bloomed almost 50 years later.
“The same societal ills that beset African Americans in ’68 had been heightened over the years because of the lack of federal, state and local funding to correct many of the ills,” Bishop Miles said. “And what made it worse is the fact that the employment opportunities present in ’68 are virtually nonexistent in 2015, particularly Rust Belt jobs like those at Bethlehem Steel, which at its peak employed about 32,000 people.
“That employment has been replaced by minimum wage, part-time, often seasonal jobs in the service industry,” he continued. “And now the largest employer in poor communities in Baltimore is the illegal drug enterprise, which was virtually non-existent in 1968.”
The explosion of the drug trade in turn influenced the adoption of an aggressive, “broken windows” policing policy that fostered police mistreatment of African Americans and bred mistrust.
The slaying of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless other unarmed Blacks at the hands of police and vigilantes over the past few years triggered protests across the nation. And, the death of Freddie Gray, a Sandtown-Winchester resident, while in police custody on April 19, brought matters in Baltimore to a head.
Days of peaceful protest were transformed April 27, the day of Gray’s funeral, when a group of students began to taunt and throw missiles at police officers and their cars near Mondawmin Mall. The roving band proceeded down North Avenue, looting and burning stores, including a CVS on the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues. Businesses in Fells Point, on the East side were also targeted; and parts of Monument Street, around the commercial center, and buildings around Church Square were damaged. The biggest loss was that of Southern Baptist Church’s Mary Harvin Transformation Center, a $16 million project on the 1700 block of North Chester St. that would have provided affordable housing for seniors and a community center.
Activists and interfaith leaders, particularly the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple, took to the streets, offering prayers to God and petitions to rioters to stop the destruction. And, as the hustlers did in ‘68, members of the Crips, Bloods and Black Guerilla Family gangs also stepped up to try and renew the peace in 2015.
In all, at least 20 police officers were injured, more than 150 fires were started, more than 200 businesses from East to West Baltimore were damaged and more than 200 persons were arrested, according to reports.
The damage was nowhere near as far-ranging or extensive as that left in the wake of the ’68 riots.
“1968 saw the destruction of just about every business in the African-American community that was not African-American owned, many of which never returned to the community,” Bishop Miles said.
In fact there are still some burnt-up shells of businesses that were burned in 1968, particularly on Gay Street. But the new destruction compounded blight left behind 47 years ago, some leaders said.
“There are still vacant buildings from the ‘60s that were destroyed during the riots. And we have, for the last 30, 40 years, been trying to rebuild,” said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, who represents communities on the East Side and who attends Southern Baptist Church, whose community center was burnt down.
“We’re still recovering from a situation that occurred 40 years ago and now we have further destruction on top of it. This just sets us further back.”
Bishop Miles concurred, saying the ’68 riots precipitated “White backlash” nationwide that led to further economic depression in Black communities and the rise of anti-Black political forces, and that impact has not ebbed.
“The ’68 riots created a sense of ill will by the majority community towards the African-American community that led to opposition to affirmative action, a rise in efforts to resuscitate restrictions to voting, neglect of urban communities and White flight from those communities,” he said. “2015, unfortunately, has the same potential to create that same set of dynamics unless people of goodwill in all communities choose to take a different path.”
The same slow-paced or nonexistent recovery that took place after 1968 will likely reoccur unless the philanthropic, business and government communities work together to create job opportunities, out-of-school activities for youth, economic development, reform the criminal justice system, etc. for Baltimore’s African-American communities, Bishop Miles continued.
“There needs to be the same type of strategy development for neighborhoods as was created for the development of downtown, a strategy that must go forward regardless of who is in the mayor’s office or the governor’s seat,” he said. “Unless that kind of higher commitment is made, three to five years from now we will be reliving the same type of turmoil that we are witnessing today.”