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A witness to history recalls 1968, when the National Guard patrolled the streets of Baltimore

National Guardsmen march along the 1900 block of Greenmount avenue.
National Guardsmen march along the 1900 block of Greenmount avenue. (William L. LaForce, Jr., Baltimore Sun file photo)

Some say it began with a Molotov cocktail thrown into the window of Gabriel’s Spaghetti House. Ralph Moore heard it started at a shop on Greenmount and North Avenue.

Moore, chairman of By Peaceful Means, a local organization that promotes nonviolence and positive conflict resolution, was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school in 1968. He took three different buses from West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood to get to Loyola Blakefield in Towson, where he was one of the few black students.

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At home, Moore watched National Guardsmen with bayonets patrol the streets near Pennsylvania Avenue. There were tanks, too, sent by Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. In Baltimore County, it was if nothing had happened. A different world.

As he arrived home in the evening, Moore sprinted inside the row home at Arlington and Riggs avenues to get inside before curfew. He and his mother watched from their upstairs window as people down below wandered into a looted corner store and out with a box of cookies. Others raided shops on Pennsylvania Avenue, nabbing some fine clothes for Palm Sunday services at church, Moore said.

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Moore understood why it was happening. The night Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed, Moore’s father woke him up to tell him the news. Violence hit Detroit and Washington right away, but took longer to come to Baltimore.

Armed soldiers stand watch as firemen battle noontime fire in an empty warehouse at Broadway and Orleans street in April 1968. The four alarmer, termed arson by fire officials, was the most serious incident in a generally quiet day.
Armed soldiers stand watch as firemen battle noontime fire in an empty warehouse at Broadway and Orleans street in April 1968. The four alarmer, termed arson by fire officials, was the most serious incident in a generally quiet day. (Photo by Clarence B. Garrett, Ba/Baltimore Sun)

Moore doesn’t use the term “riot” to describe what happened in American cities then — or now. To him, it’s an uprising, “the language of the unheard, as you have heard too many times.”

People directed their rage to buildings.

“In those stores, the members of the community weren’t hired so easily," Moore said. "The owners of the stores didn’t necessarily look like us. People felt some anger and frustration that prices were too high, credit wasn’t easy. These are the everyday things that people live with until they can’t live with them any more.”

Some corner grocery store owners spray painted “Soul brother” on their storefronts to signal their support for the rights of black people.

“They were trying to save their store,” Moore said. Sometimes, they misspelled “soul.”

According to an article in The Afro-American, one shop on the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Ave. remained open – J.J. Brill’s – where soldiers entered through a broken window and took catnaps on milk crates. There they drank coffee and ate beef stew, the paper reported at the time.

A reader of The Afro-American wrote a letter to the editor urging protesters to turn to peaceful means, following King’s example. “We people that live right in the middle of this mess, we who own our homes, don’t want to see our life’s savings go up in smoke,” wrote Mrs. Carrie Robinson, of Baltimore.

In all, 1,000 businesses would be damaged, according to The Baltimore Sun archives. So many people were arrested that the venue now known as Royal Farms Arena became a temporary holding cell.

Six people died, including two found at Gabriel’s Spaghetti House. Many neighborhoods never recovered from the impact, said Antero Pietila, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who arrived here after 1968′s violent unrest.

Whites fled the city in even larger numbers than they had in previous years, hunkering down in the suburbs. “Whites had this victimization complex — they felt that they had been driven out of the city by blacks,” said Pietila, author of the book “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.”

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The following years saw the rise of Agnew, who had impressed then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon with his tough, law-and-order stance.

But to Moore, now 68, the lingering impact of the 1968 unrest was this: The black community spoke. The world, at long last, had to listen.

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