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Martin Luther King Jr.'s death changed lives — and Baltimore's civil rights movement

Robert Moore, 73, was the first person arrested at a demonstration against segregated Gwynn Oak amusement park in 1962, was later arrested while protesting the Vietnam War, and has fought unapologetically for the disenfranchised ever since.

Robert Moore and half a dozen colleagues were gathered in a small office in East Baltimore planning a march on Annapolis when the news flashed across a television screen: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the man most saw as the leader of the civil rights movement, had been shot to death on a motel balcony in Memphis.

Shock spread through the room. Then came outrage and dismay.

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Then they got down to work.

Moore had just opened the Baltimore office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. His role that day 50 years ago included writing a leaflet calling for a national day of recognition for King. The group ran off 50,000 copies and distributed them throughout the city.

"Our response was, 'Don't mourn — organize," Moore recalls. "Shooting King was not going to stop us from doing what we had to do."

That was one response; there were others. The civil rights movement was fragmenting by April 1968, its leaders divided over goals and tactics. The assassination of its top figure only hastened the process, leaving stunned, angry and grieving supporters to determine for themselves how — or whether — to carry the struggle for social justice forward.

In Baltimore, Bob Moore helped organize thousands of local health care workers and led a local union. Marc Steiner moved to the New Hampshire mountains before returning as a community activist. James Griffin became a warrior on the city school board.

Robert Birt became an academic, and Devon Wilford-Said found her calling as an advocate for residents of public housing.

The effects of King's death varied in large part on how one perceived him — whether as noble peacemaker, societal radical or too-gradual reformer. But the movement survived in Baltimore as it did elsewhere, advancing in fits and starts over the next half century, taking as many forms as the citizens who kept his dream alive.

Robert Birt, 65, grew up in the Latrobe Homes project in East Baltimore, where he learned early on to admire Martin Luther King as a man fighting for the freedom of African-Americans.
‘I’ll never forget’

It was a Saturday morning in 1959 when 6-year-old Robert Birt sat in his family's apartment in an East Baltimore housing project, watching cartoons on television.

A commercial flashed across the screen showing hordes of happy children on a roller coaster.

It didn't occur to him to notice, he says now, that they were all white.

"Can we go?" he asked his parents.

His father, Oliver, a factory worker, dodged the question. But his mother, Hattie Mae, a Bible teacher, sat him down and shared the harsh truth: Gwynn Oak Park in Baltimore County didn't admit people with their skin color.

The park's policy became a flashpoint in the local fight for civil rights in the early 1960s.

"My mother tried to make it clear that it was something wrong not with us, but with the system," recalls Birt, 65, a philosophy professor at Bowie State University.

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It wasn't long before Birt knew King as the man leading the war against such ignorance. The minister's picture was everywhere: in the Birt home, on friends' mantels, in barbershops. His parents saw King as a nearly biblical figure. Birt told any grownup who'd listen that King was "fighting for the freedom of our people."

"I'm not sure everyone was sold on his philosophy of nonviolence," he says. But "in my family, and for many people, Dr. King was next to God. My mother might have believed he was the apostle who replaced Judas."

So it was that when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite came on television that April 4 half a century ago to announce that King had been murdered, it was devastating.

Hattie Mae cried and couldn't stop. Oliver said nothing had ever hurt him so deeply. And Birt, then 15, vowed he'd "never forget they killed Dr. King."

His bookish personality turned to anger. He says the feeling has never quite left him.

Birt didn't take part in the riots that erupted across Baltimore, but he didn't blame those who did. He told stunned white classmates that the damage was their fault — that a history that embraced slavery and lynchings had created a wellspring of anger.

The murder of King, he says,"proved once and for all that the system couldn't be reformed" — and the realization led him to become part, in his own way, of what historian Peter Levy calls the "black power surge" that took hold in the city.

Birt watched with interest as members of the Black Panther Party grew more visible; store owners hung Black Liberation flags and photos of Malcolm X; high school and college students formed black student unions, and a few educators started teaching Swahili.

He might have joined the Panthers himself, he says, had his parents not ordered him to continue his education. But as he earned degrees at Morgan State and Vanderbilt, he devoured the thought of King, Malcolm, Stokely Carmichael, several newly popular Afrocentric writers and others, viewing them through the lens of philosophy on his way to a tenured professorship at Bowie State.

King's life and death, Birt says, affected his decision to gravitate toward "what could be called the life of the mind."

Others chose a different path.

Marc Steiner, 71, joined the civil rights movement at 13 by asking for and getting, his mother’s permission to join a picket line.
A fractured campaign

By 1968, the Civil Rights Movement had achieved most of its legal goals, thanks in large part to King's leadership.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had affirmed the rights of African-Americans to public places, fair hiring practices and the ballot box.

After those milestones, King resolved to lead what he'd come to see as a necessary next phase: addressing the deeper economic disparities he viewed as the "inseparable twin" of racial discrimination.

Marc Steiner was in the trenches for that cause when the leader was killed.

"The assassination of Martin Luther King shattered the movement," he says.

Steiner, known to Baltimoreans as a longtime voice in progressive talk radio, was raised in the racially mixed Baltimore neighborhood of Forest Park, where he attended school with whites and blacks.

Thanks largely to his politically progressive British-born mother, he became the only white member of an otherwise all-black Boy Scout troop in East Baltimore, an experience that generated lifelong friendships.

In those days, King seemed the perfect inspiration.

Steiner was 13 in 1959 when he got his mother's permission to join a picket line at one of the restaurants in the segregated White Coffee Pot chain. Within three years, he was a veteran of the Freedom Ride protests against segregated restaurants on the Eastern Shore.

But the intensity of the battle — Steiner got his nose broken, and was arrested before he turned 18 — and meeting such figures as Gloria Richardson, the African-American housewife who declined to forswear the use of arms in self-defense while leading a local movement in Cambridge, led him to question King's approach.

"A lot of people, especially in SNCC, thought King meant well but didn't push hard enough," he says.

A year to the day before his death, King alienated many in the movement, including NAACP president Ralph Bunche, but won over Steiner and others with an anti-Vietnam War, pro-social justice speech at Riverside Church in New York. Months later, King launched a nationwide movement for which the 21-year-old Steiner would volunteer.

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King conceived the "Poor People's Campaign" as a multiracial coalition of poor people from across the United States. They were to descend on the nation's capital in May 1968, camp out in a tent village on the National Mall for several weeks and carry out massive acts of civil disobedience as King and others urged Congress to pass an Economic Bill of Rights.

The assassination of King the month before left the campaign dispirited and bereft of effective leadership.

Steiner went to the Mall and stayed the entire six weeks, slogging through mud left by frequent downpours until he says police contrived ways to shut it down in June.

"We came there in hope and left in despair," Steiner says.

Steiner declined entreaties to go with friends to join the Weather Underground, the radical left-wing group that would go on to bomb the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. He "ran away" to attend college in rural New Hampshire, only to return to Baltimore re-energized after 18 months.

He found work in an anti-poverty program, organized a food cooperative and a "people's free garage," and became a lead organizer for the Tenant Union Group, which helped poor tenants fight for their rights, sometimes using guerrilla tactics such as dropping rats and roaches inside slum landlords' homes. He later taught in city schools.

Steiner, now 71, is president of the Center for Emerging Media Inc., a producer of radio, podcasts and films. He's working on an documentary series about King's former barber, Nelson Malden, and helping to teach a course about the Poor People's Campaign at the University of Baltimore.

He says the movement brought advances, but after King died, it never achieved what it might have.

"Whether you thought his way was the answer or not, he represented so much to so many people," Steiner says. "His death in some ways was part of the movement already falling apart."

Devon Wilford-Said, 64, has spent nearly half a century fighting a grassroots version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s battle for equal rights.
‘Wow, he’s coming!’

Devon Wilford-Said has been toiling quietly as an advocate for those who live in public housing since the 1970s.

"I've been doing some of the things Martin Luther King did, but at the grassroots level," the 64-year-old says.

She might not have pursued her life's work had she not met the great leader.

She was 10 years old and living with her mother and sisters in a rowhouse on North Bond Street in October 1964 when King made one of his many visits to the Baltimore, this time as part of a multi-city campaign to encourage "Negroes" to vote in the coming elections.

She felt she had a few things in common with King. Having grown up with a white best friend, she found racial prejudice bizarre. She was sure peaceful means could bring it to an end. Her mother and aunt raved about him so much he felt almost like a member of the family.

And King was such a celebrity in the black community that when it was announced that he was coming to speak at Faith Baptist Church across the street, she could hardly believe it.

"To us, it was 'Wow, he's coming! This is big, y'all," she says.

She recalls seeing King's motorcade rolling down Gay Street and turning along Ashland. She ran with a friend alongside a phalanx of motorcycles, waving to get his attention.

When he finally emerged on a small stage in front of the church, she says, a mob of grownups flocked around his small podium. But as she elbowed her way to the front, King caught her eye, reached down to shake her hand, and said hello.

It's a moment Wilford-Said says "froze in time, like in a movie."

She recalls the softness of his hands and skin, his neatly trimmed hair and mustache and his dignified bearing. But most of all: the way he connected with her.

"He wouldn't just look at you and, you know, pawn you away," she says. "He would receive you. He would actually look you in the eyes, and smile, and grip your hand… I've never forgotten it."

Three and a half years later, when she and her mother saw the Cronkite announcement on TV, they shrieked, and sobbed, and tried to console each other.

Wilford-Said says she flashed back to his speech from Memphis the day before, when he'd told his followers that they would reach "the promised land" — but he might not be there with them.

"He knew he was going to die," she cried to her mother.

When the riots began, the 14-year-old was torn. She says she took food from a vandalized grocery store, one whose white owners had a reputation for treating black patrons badly, to "get even." But she and a friend were so appalled to see so many of their black neighbors throwing rocks at the cars of whites driving by that they tried to wave traffic away from their street.

"I understand they were angry because of what happened to Dr. King, but violence is not the way to rectify a situation," she says. "You don't continue on to to the very thing he marched against."

Within months, she and her family moved into the Latrobe Homes public housing project, a safer place where she recalls blacks and whites living together peacefully. But she soon learned that housing officials were not always scrupulous in meeting their legal obligations to tenants. She began organizing awareness events for Latrobe tenants.

Parren Mitchell, soon to be Maryland's first black congressman, spoke at one event. He suggested Wilford-Said try working with the Resident Advisory Board, a citywide panel that then-housing commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr. had set up in 1968 to encourage tenants to advise him on policy.

She went on to work for the city. She also spent the next four decades doing legal research, leading meetings, taking part in the occasional strike and encouraging residents to understand and assert their rights.

Today Wilford-Said lives at Pleasant View Gardens in East Baltimore, a public housing facility for seniors a few blocks from where she grew up. She's a board adviser for its resident council.

She says she never forgot the example of King, the man who'd shaken her hand — and who showed by example how much change can be achieved by peacefully insisting on what's right.

"If people can just come to the table and reason," she says, "you can get anything you need."

Jim Griffin, 86, a young father in the early 1960s, tried to “watch the civil rights movement from afar” – but once he was drawn in, became an effective leader on the local scene.
Still alive

Two longtime Baltimore civil rights leaders, Bob Moore and James Griffin, believe they advanced the cause of equality in Baltimore, at times in substantial ways.

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But they agree they never managed to bring about the kind of change they, and King, envisioned — a transformation so deep it would have transcended the realm of law to change people's perceptions of one another.

That unrealized goal, scholars say, is what happens when a movement is robbed of its moral center.

"It wasn't as if King had been the only leader — others in the movement had taken on leadership roles — but it was devastating to lose him," says Betsy Nix, a history professor at the University of Baltimore who led an oral history project on the 1968 Baltimore riots a decade ago. She collected testimonies "about what that loss of hope felt like."

When the rioting began,the rangy, soft-spoken Griffin — then president of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality -- headed across town to East Baltimore, near CORE's local office, and tried to calm people down.

He was cautious enough to approach only the rioters he knew from the many hours he'd spent canvassing the neighborhood as president.

"Be cool," he told them. "Don't get yourself hurt. Don't get folks hurt. Get what you're going to get and get out."

He saw "a lot of damage and a lot of bloodshed" during the uprising, he says. His words of caution fell mostly on deaf ears, but at least he didn't get hurt, as his wife feared.

"Nobody hit me or tried to chase me away, so it must have been OK," Griffin says.

Moore, the SNCC leader, had a mixed reaction. He was on his way downtown when he saw crowds forming on Aisquith Street, then was stopped at a roadblock police had set up at the Orleans Street viaduct. There he saw what he believes was the first Molotov cocktail thrown.

He knew the mayhem would spread, and he expected it to prove divisive for the movement. But part of him was thankful the people of Baltimore "finally cared enough to do something."

These two men with their contrasting personalities — the laconic Griffin and the defiantly diminutive Moore — became close friends through the civil rights movement.

Griffin grew up in East Baltimore and rode his studious nature to a college degree, his family's first. As a young adult, his main goal was to raise his family in a stable environment. They were living in their house in Fairmont when King led the March on Washington.

Griffin skipped the event — he doesn't like crowds. When a white coworker asked his thoughts about it the next morning, he had to admit he hadn't been there.

He felt so guilty he joined CORE, a multiracial national organization, that night. He was soon named chapter president.

"I guess it was because I was available," muses Griffin, 86. "I didn't really have any skills in that realm."

He quickly learned to organize the poor and disenfranchised, speak through a bullhorn and sit across the table from the powerful people he once found intimidating.

In his five years as president, CORE helped integrate "hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, even cemeteries" in Baltimore, and worked to end discriminatory housing practices.

When King was killed, a more militant national leadership of CORE was in the process of sweeping Griffin from office. But he ended up a member of the activist school board that hired Roland Patterson, the first black superintendent of the Baltimore City Public Schools, in 1971.

Moore, 73, never had any doubts about joining the movement.

As a young churchgoer, he says, he took seriously the words to the children's song "Jesus loves the little children of the world" — and connected them to the struggle for equal rights.

Moore became a member of the Jackie Robinson Youth Council of the NAACP, picketed BG&E and the telephone company for their discriminatory hiring practices, and became the first of nearly 300 people arrested at one of the major demonstrations at Gwynn Oak Park in July 1963, all before graduating from high school.

He was later the first person arrested at a demonstration against the Vietnam War.

"I don't know what it is about me, but I was always the first one in the" police van, he says, and laughs.

The following year, he helped form a local project — Union for Jobs or Income Now, or U-JOIN — in which he and others in the Students for a Democratic Society organized poor Baltimoreans around housing struggles and welfare rights.

Moore came to the public's attention in 1964, when then-City Councilman William Donald Schaefer — who knew him only as an idealistic young activist — asked him to testify on a proposal to fund antipoverty programs.

“Our response was, ‘Don’t mourn — organize. Shooting King was not going to stop us from doing what we had to do.”


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Moore, then 19, stood up at the meeting and ripped the proposal for not going far enough.

"Schaefer's face turned red," he says with a shrug. "He figured I'd support it."

Moore was driving several Black Power-themed initiatives in Baltimore when King was assassinated.

The self-described former black revolutionary says the leaflets he and his SNCC comrades passed out after King's death had little effect — a harbinger of the lull that followed.

The funding SNCC and other groups relied on suddenly dried up after the riots, he says, forcing many to seek other jobs.

Moore found one with Local 1199, the National Organizing Committee of Hospital and Health Care Workers, and quickly pitched in to work on unionizing the city's hospital workers, the vast majority of whom were black.

He believes fresh memories of the 1968 riots haunted hospital officials, strengthening the union's position. The 7,000 workers at all seven city hospitals unionized as 1199-E DC in August 1969.

"It was the first time Hopkins ever got beat," he says. "That was a huge triumph."

Moore was elected president of the union in 1986 and served through 2005. He's now working on a memoir.

Count him among those who saw King's methods as insufficiently radical — and he reminds that King had suffered a sharp decline in popularity by 1968.

But Moore has no doubt the leader's death changed the direction of the movement, if only by forcing supporters to decide where they stood.

Had King lived, Moore says, we might all have seen more progress toward equality in Baltimore and beyond, especially in the area of social justice. Perhaps the riots following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 would not have happened.

But he tells a reporter not to overlook the gains the movement made in the past half-century.

"I'm sitting here talking to you, and I ain't dead," he says. "That's progress."

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