When Baltimore erupted in rage

The Baltimore Sun

Walking up Gay Street - past burning storefronts, past looters carrying suitcases through the broken display window of a pawn shop, and past Baltimore police cars racing by on their way from one riot call to another - I could hardly take it all in.

That Monday after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder was chaos in East Baltimore, where I struggled as a raw, 23-year-old police reporter for the News American to gather information. Strangely, none of the looters gave me a second glance, and I was calm and unafraid. Young, white, with short hair and wearing a sportcoat and tie, I probably looked like a police officer. I overheard several actual officers lamenting that since the new emphasis on civil rights, they had to arrest suspects instead of taking them around a corner and beating them.

One black man who passed me shook his head and said it was a "shame" what was happening all around us.

And it was. Nobody deserved to have his business ruined, his home burned, his possessions stolen. It was tragic, but then so were the years of injustices to Baltimore's African-Americans - confined to "their" schools and neighborhoods by racial prejudice, unable to find the kinds of jobs and opportunities whites had, yet spurred by the hopes that Dr. King aroused in all of us.

His death by sniper aroused a rage that I knew very little about. Over the years, I'd had a few hints, though.

Just months earlier, I'd encountered a small group of black teens working at a gas station as part of a job training program in East Baltimore. I had just emerged from covering a Saturday night liquor store robbery across the street, and one youth called me over.

"You should write about how it feels to be treated like you're nobody in this city," he said quietly.

On another occasion, I saw a small African-American boy, about 10 years old, in the back seat of a police car. The fear and hatred were clear in his eyes as a heavy, white police officer screamed at him from the sidewalk, the officer's face florid with anger.

I had grown up in Baltimore and stayed, but not in the same Baltimore the city's African-Americans knew.

Our family had moved when I was 3 from a cramped rowhouse in Pimlico to Braddish Avenue, part of a four-street development of new brick rowhouses off Gwynns Falls Parkway near what is now Mondawmin. It was 1948, and all the houses were inhabited by white people.

Five years later, I overheard my parents talking to neighbors about trying to prevent anyone on the block from selling to a black family, lest a mass exodus of whites begin. After one family did sell to blacks, the white flight took over. Within two years, the entire development changed from all white to nearly all black. Our house was purchased by a black woman whose son was killed in the Korean War.

We ended up near what is now Reisterstown Plaza in Northwest Baltimore. My new school, Fallstaff Elementary, was all white, as was the new neighborhood.

At age 16, desperate for a scarce summer job, I answered a newspaper ad seeking teens for magazine "survey" crews. I went downtown and waited for hours with dozens of others, black and white, until a white man whispered in my ear that the job was mine if I waited until all the black kids gave up and left.

Race defined the lives of Baltimoreans in myriad ways for many years. The 1968 riot hurt the city, the neighborhoods where it occurred, and the people who lived in them, but the violence and upheaval also accelerated long-overdue changes. White people had to learn to see blacks as equals - people entitled to the same jobs, schools, homes and expectations.

For all their destructiveness, riots across the nation that year also contained the message that things had to change for blacks, and at a quicker pace.

Larry Carson covers Howard County government and politics for The Sun. His e-mail is larry.carson@baltsun.com.

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