City rioting evokes memories of 1968 unrest

Rioting evokes memories of 1968 unrest that devastated Baltimore, but also ideas for how to get past it.

Watching televised scenes Monday night of looting, burning and rock-throwing in Baltimore brought back memories for Jewell Chambers. The West Baltimore resident was a young reporter for the Afro-American newspaper the last time the city saw a similar upheaval.

In early April 1968, the city exploded in a rampage of rock-throwing, arson and looting following the slaying of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. By the time peace was restored four days later, six people had been killed, 700 injured, 1,000 businesses ransacked or burned and 5,800 people arrested.

"There was absolute fear," said Chambers, now 72.

She recalls dodging rocks while covering the unrest — something reporters did Monday as well. She witnessed a bar owner pleading with rioters not to torch his place, and flinched when a jittery National Guardsman poked a bayonet into her car after stopping her for being out after the curfew.

The legacy of that trauma lingers 47 year later, say Chambers and others who lived through it or studied it. It also offers lessons, they say, for how to get past the latest eruption.

"A lot of the same issues that existed in 1968 in a lot of these neighborhoods still exist today," said Elizabeth Nix, an assistant history professor at the University of Baltimore who co-edited a book examining the 1968 riots.

While King's murder in Memphis sparked the rioting, Nix said, the violence fed on discontent in the African-American community over economic inequality, housing discrimination and perceptions of being disrespected by neighborhood merchants, many of whom did not live there.

The underlying resentment over poverty and racial inequities remains today, Nix said.

"There's still a lot of people who don't feel like their voices are heard and that they're cut off from the economic and social life of Baltimore," she concluded.

The 1968 rioting began in East Baltimore, as supermarkets, furniture stores, taverns and other shops were ransacked and burned. After hours of trying to quell the violence, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III called in more than 5,000 National Guardsmen and imposed an 11 p.m. curfew. Some criticized D'Alesandro then for not being more forceful in heading off trouble, as others now are faulting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

But even the National Guard was not enough then. Rioting broke out the following day in West Baltimore, prompting Gov. Spiro Agnew to seek help from the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in thousands of Army troops.

In one respect, the 1968 riots were not as disruptive as the current upheaval. The Orioles only had to postpone a single game, their season home opener. But two players, shortstop Mark Belanger and relief pitcher Pete Richert, missed the game, having been called up by their National Guard units.

The 1968 devastation had lasting effects, said Robert C. Embry Jr., who was a member of Baltimore City Council then. It accelerated an exodus of white residents to the suburbs, he said, and it removed a lot of stores from African-American neighborhoods — leading to a shortage of shopping opportunities that persists today.

Embry, who's now president of the Abell Foundation after a career in public service that included being the city's first housing commissioner, said he didn't believe the outburst of violence on Monday would be enough to scare off the recent influx of residents or investment into the city.

"But I could be totally wrong," he said.

Chambers said she's disgusted by the vandalism and looting. The CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned, she said, was there to serve local residents, including a nearby senior housing facility.

But she said she believes the rioting shouldn't distract from dealing with the festering anger over police treatment of residents in poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Before the outbreak, there had been a week of mostly peaceful demonstrations over the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, an incident protesters contend is part of a pattern of abuse by authorities.

"What we need to be concerned with in Baltimore is not so much black or white, it's blue," Chambers said. "It's the actions of the police."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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