THE DESCENT OF DECENCY Youth rally in '69 suddenly turned into nightmare of violence MEMORIAL STADIUM: AN UNUSUAL DAY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Sept. 29 article in The Sun incorrectly reported the sponsor of the annual Christmas tree sale at Memorial Stadium that benefits the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland. The correct sponsor is the American Legion, Department of Maryland.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It was anything but decent.

BThey held a big rally at Memorial Stadium in the spring of 1969, a rally for local youth to come together and show that not all of America's children were drug-crazed hippies intent on dismantling the establishment of the United States.

Said one participant: "It was supposed to show that everything wasn't going to hell in a handbasket."

This gig was trouble from the word go.

Memorial Stadium has often been used for non-sporting events, and an assortment of oddities have taken place there since 1954, when the ballpark's current configuration was essentially completed.

In 1981, Christian evangelist Billy Graham held a ballpark crusade to save souls; fireworks launched from the outfield regularly exploded across the Waverly skyline during Independence Day celebrations; the city held a pep rally for public school teachers there before the 1989-90 school year; and thousands of people show up at the ballpark every winter to buy Christmas trees from Lions' Club volunteers working for the Eye Bank of Maryland.

From 1940 until 1976, George Bull and the Hamilton American Legion Post No. 20 sponsored the "March of Champions" drum " and bugle corps competition that brought marching bands and majorettes to the stadium from up and down the East Coast.

Easter Sunday sunrise services have been celebrated at the stadium and, although not in the current structure, the 33rd Street site has been host to rodeos, boxing matches, open-air town meetings, "I Am An American Day" parades and auto races.

But nothing -- not even the big lightning storm that forced rock star Eric Clapton to cancel a stadium concert during the %J bicentennial summer of 1976 -- rocked the big pile of bricks on 33rd Street like the decency rally.

"I don't know what started the trouble," said a local reporter sent to cover it. "But it was quick and ugly."

Although it was promoted in every high school throughout the metro area, very few kids knew exactly what it was they were attending.

Many youngsters arrived on the rampant rumor that James Brown and his Famous Flames were going to give a free concert. Others believed it would be an arena to protest the war in Vietnam or a forum to push for the right of 18-year-olds to vote.

And thousands of naive youngsters from churches and community centers in the suburbs arrived on buses for an afternoon of wholesome music and good clean fun.

Altogether, more than 40,000 people showed up at the stadium on April 20 to attend the "Maryland Youth Rally for Decency."

By the time police shut the rally down not long after it started, rioting and mugging left 138 people hurt, 142 arrested and seven stabbed. Seven police officers were injured, including one whose kneecap was crushed when someone threw a trash can down a ramp. One girl was nearly raped in the upper deck, 40 transit buses were damaged, seats were torn from the stands and thrown onto the field, a blind kid was punched in the face and robbed of his bus fare, and police got a call for a bomb at the stadium in the middle of everything.

"This was supposed to reunite everybody, to get the teen-agers together and make everybody happy," said Baltimore police officer Joseph H. Longo, assigned to a traffic detail at the ballpark that day. "It didn't work."

Looking for a quick yardstick to measure the difference between Baltimore today and Baltimore 22 years ago? In all the violence and confusion at Memorial Stadium's Decency Rally, no one fired a gun.

The rally was patterned after a similar festival that attracted 30,000 young people in Miami several months earlier, an event staged in response to singer Jim Morrison's arrest for exposing himself at a Doors concert in Florida. Others were expected across the nation.

Said Baltimore comptroller Hyman A. Pressman, the key adult organizer of the event: "This [will] give youth an opportunity to show that the majority have a love for decency and the respect for morality which is the badge of proper upbringing in their homes."

Pressman, in failing health and unavailable for comment for this article, seized on the event, icing it with the kind of buildup he lathered on the March of Dimes Walk-a-thon for years. He predicted that Baltimore could stage a rally for decency bigger and better than any town in the nation.

He was assisted by state Senator Larry Young (D-Baltimore), who was chairman of the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council in 1969. "We got together to counter all the negatives being espoused about young people back then," said Young. "Hyman Pressman was our adult liaison."

With his penchant for corn pone and publicity, Pressman immersed himself in the project, calling the shots so far as to exclude the local White Panther anti-war group from a pre-rally parade by saying the decency event was "not for the likes of them."

David Franks, a Baltimore writer, was a young teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the spring of 1969 as well as the "Minister of Sound" for the White Panthers.

Franks -- convinced that the series of decency rallies were "a vehicle of the Nixon Administration to polarize the youth of America" -- had submitted for approval the text of a hip patriotic speech he wanted to give at the rally.

Young organizers of the event voted to allow Franks to address the stadium crowd, but he never made it to the microphone.

"I was down in the dugout runway waiting for my turn to speak, and when I walked on the field surrounded by a group of Black Panthers, there was a column of 50 police barring me," he remembered. "All I was doing was trying to exercise my right to free speech, trying to point out that there was another version of patriotism and that was to resist the war. I was carrying the flag as we entered the field. The cops broke through the Black Panthers to arrest us and I wasn't going to let Old Glory touch the ground. It was the end of my innocence."

And also the end of the decency rally.

While the anti-war group was being arrested on the field -- "I remember being asked by a cop: 'Do you want to go to the hospital or to jail?' " said poet Joe Cardarelli -- total hell erupted in the stands. The issue wasn't political.

"The blacks were beating up the whites," said the late Major William A. "Box" Harris, a black police lieutenant and the head of the department's community relations at the time.

Michael Golden, now the spokesman for the state department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was on the wrong end of Lieutenant Harris' assessment.

Golden was 14 at the time and took a bus to the stadium with a church group from Glen Burnie.

From the moment he walked into the stadium, he said: "It just seemed to be mayhem. There was no sense of agenda or order, just a cacophony of people running around and screaming."

Golden and his friends found some seats in the right-field bleachers and made the mistake of going inside the lower concourse to get something to eat.

"We were in line at a stand when this kid about half my size came up to me and stuck his hands in the front pockets of my jeans, and instinctively I just pulled his hands out. He said he was going to fight me and the next thing I knew someone hit me behind my knees and when I dropped to the floor they kicked me in the face and the head and chest and stomach and groin and I was scared. Really scared," Golden said.

"My friends were just standing there in shock, and thank God this girl came up and started telling these guys what animals they were and when they got into an argument with her I ran out of the stadium.

The stuff those kids witnessed, Officer Joe Longo and the police department's entire night shift -- more than 500 cops dispatched en masse to 33rd Street in riot gear with shotguns -- tried to control.

"It was one hectic, terrible day, like a bomb exploded and it had racial tones," he said, remembering a trio of young men inside the stadium dressed in African garb and carrying spears. "Fights broke out simultaneously all over the stadium, all at once."

As the crowd dispersed through Waverly, violence and robberies continued along 33rd Street, Greenmount Avenue, and side streets in between.

The next day, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III explained it like this: "There was a hoodlum element of 500 to 1,000 youths that doesn't represent any segment of the community or any cause. This is a group that is out to disrupt society as we know it."

In the end, the thugs accomplished what the anti-war hippies could not.

"I took some solace," said David Franks, "that it ended the decency rallies in this country."

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