On the front lines: Baltimore photographers recall documenting 1968 riots

Irving Henry Webster Phillips Jr. was a photographer for the Baltimore Afro-American on April 6, 1968 when the paper received notice that what later would be described as spontaneous riots were about to break out.

He remembers that the late Walter Hall Lively, a local civil rights activist, telephoned the office that afternoon and said: “Come over to the Gay Street mall. Something is about to happen.”

So the 22-year-old photographer headed out with a camera, film and a handkerchief to press over his face in case there was tear gas. Phillips was at the mall when a furniture store in the 700 block of Gay Street erupted in flames — the first of what would be 800 fires set in 72 hours. He would use his bandanna more than once.

“It took the cops a while to figure out how to deal with the riots,” Phillips, now 72, recalled.

“Someone would call the cops and they’d run right up and get hit with stones and bottles while the people who set the fire escaped. It was wild. I had been in the Vietnam War. But, in the war I had a gun, and I knew I could always do to them what they were trying to do to me. In 1968 I just had a camera.”

Baltimore’s photographers were on the front lines during the four days and three nights of rioting in which six people were killed and 700 injured.

As an estimated 1,000 small businesses were ransacked or burned and 5,800 people were arrested, the photographers dodged airborne missiles, hid film from angry looters and police officers, were occasionally hauled to jail, and hoarded dimes so they could call the office — on the rare occasions when a pay telephone booth was operable, not on fire and not in the path of rioters. Flat tires were a continuing problem as Baltimore’s cameramen navigated through streets covered with broken glass.

They worked for 36 hours or more without a break, were dirty, exhausted, frequently frightened — and nearly all felt privileged to have the chance to record history. If an editor unwisely ordered them to spend a few hours in the office and out of harm’s way, they rebelled.

“I felt lucky to be there,” Phillips said. “History only happens once. What we did, the photographs we took, meant something to someone. They made a difference.”

Here are some of their stories:

After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Baltimore was on edge, the photographers recalled. Every time they ventured outside for the next two days, they could feel the tension crisping the air.

Both Phillips and Walter McCardell, a photographer for The Baltimore Sun, had photographed King previously on separate occasions. They recall that the civil rights leader radiated a moral gravitas that had a profound effect on his listeners.

McCardell, now 92, photographed King for the United Press International wire service on Aug. 28, 1963 during the March on Washington as the Baptist minister made his famous “I Have a Dream,” speech.

“I was walking all around the Reflecting Pool trying to get shots,” McCardell recalled.

“I was busy, so I wasn’t getting a lot of the content of what he was saying. But then he said, ‘I have a dream’ real loud. It made an impression.” For a second or two, McCardell stopped in his tracks. Then his reflexes kicked in and he kept working. But every time King repeated that phrase, it landed on the photographer with an almost physical impact.

“It’s been 50 years,” McCardell said, “and I still remember the exact sound of his voice when he said those words.”

Phillips met King one year before his death when he photographed the civil rights leader in Greene County, Alabama.

In those years, Phillips said, he had fallen into the self-destructive habit of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to cope with the daily humiliations of being a young black man in mid-20th century America. Meeting King saved his life.

“What King stood for, the way he made you feel,” Phillips said, “is something money can’t buy. He made me strong. We knew we were right, and he made us determined not to let the fear win out.

“Then he was assassinated, and a part of me was just gone. I wondered how I was going to make it.”

When Baltimore began to burn two days after King was murdered, few of the city’s minority residents were surprised.

After hearing about the riots while attending his daughter’s gym meet, McCardell jumped into this car and headed for Harford Avenue and Aisquith Street. He parked and was walking toward an area where a crowd was gathered when he was intercepted by an African-American man in his late teens.

McCardell, who is white, recalled: “The young man said, ‘Mister, these people are really mad. You shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.’ I took his advice and left. Later in life, I thought, ‘This fellow might have been an angel. He probably saved me from some serious trouble.’ ”

Later during that long and surreal shift, McCardell and his co-worker, the photographer Bill Hotz, trekked down Harford Avenue. While they were standing in front of a closed store just south of North Avenue, McCardell suddenly noticed that the back of his legs was becoming uncomfortably warm.

“I still don’t know how they started the fire,” he said. “There was no explosion, but where a moment ago there had been nothing, there were now flames shooting up. I got my backside singed, but it was more funny than scary.”

That’s one of the lessons that McCardell and the other photographers learned — even during times of profound crisis, there are brief respites of humor.

Here’s another reminiscence of this type from the late Sun photographer William LaForce Jr.. His account of how he and fellow Sun photographer Clarence “Curly” Garrett very nearly arrested a young man was published in the May 1968 issue of The Sun’s employee newspaper:

The two cameramen were photographing a group of youths looting a clothing store on Fulton Avenue when a jeep carrying members of the National Guard pulled up.

“Suddenly one youth hidden inside came running out with his arms full and began running north,” the article says.

“The guards’ jeep, facing south, couldn’t follow him, but the photographers did. The youth looked at the car and Mr. Garrett’s telephoto lens pointing at him. Thinking the lens was a gun, he stopped, dropped the clothing he was carrying and threw his arms into the air to surrender.

“The arrest was foiled when the teenager saw that the ‘gun’ was a camera and fled.”

At times, when McCardell and Phillips talk about the riots, they seem to be almost remembering two different events. McCardell was wary of the looters; Phillps felt threatened by the National Guard and the Baltimore Police Department.

The closest McCardell came to wearing handcuffs was when he and a city police officer exchanged heated words about where McCardell had temporarily and illegally parked his car on Fayette Street. An observer with the National Guard intervened and told both men to cool down. Phillips, in contrast, said he was arrested three times for shooting photos that documented police brutality.

McCardell doesn’t remember ever seeing police officers beating up black rioters. For Phillips, it was a routine occurrence.

“In those days, the cops had billy clubs,” Phillips recalled.

“There was this black kid who had been arrested who was down on the ground. While they were waiting for the paddy wagon, this white cop came over and struck him on the head with his club. When you see something like that, you have to shoot the picture even though you know you’re going to get in trouble. They grabbed me and hauled me down to Central Booking,” he said, referring to the Baltimore Police Department’s Central Booking and Intake Center.

“When they weren’t looking,” Phillips said, “I took the film out real quick and stuck it under my armpit. They took my camera away, but I still had the film.”

Both McCardell and Phillips think that something good managed to come out of the riots.

Though it might seem like a small thing, McCardell said he realized society was beginning to change when, almost overnight, black babies were given names that reflected their African and sometimes Muslim heritage.

“It was the start of the whole Black Pride movement,” he said.

Phillips noted the rising numbers of African-Americans elected to Congress in the years after King’s death. Phillips himself continued on the upward trajectory he began when he first met the Baptist minister.

In 1969, Phillips became The Sun’s first African-American photographer, and worked for the paper for the next 24 years. He married, and later taught the photography trade to his son, Irving Henry Webster Phillips III.

“Dr. King taught me so much,” Phillips Jr. said. “I had to make sure he hadn’t lived in vain.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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