The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, Baltimore was ablaze and four teens at Loyola Blakefield High School responded with their version of rebellion. They began asserting their racial identity, challenging authority and reading militant authors. They grew Afros.
In the days and months after King's murder 40 years ago today, consciousness spread nationwide as the word black replaced Negro and clenched fists were raised with pride. But the elite Jesuit school in Towson was caught off guard by the assault on its dress code. The Afros nearly got them expelled.
Christopher H. Foreman Jr., Ralph E. Moore Jr., Erich W. March and Victor Thomas - sophomores in high school when King was killed - were undergoing a rapid transformation. They were approaching manhood, grappling with what it meant to be black while straddling two vastly different worlds.
A year earlier they had left working- and middle-class city neighborhoods for Loyola's country-club campus, a complex of stately stone buildings, tennis courts and lush grounds. As members of the Loyola class with the largest number of black students - the four of them, out of 140 - their admission was a symbol of racial progress.
For the boys themselves, however, the transition between worlds was intimidating.
Would they be accepted at Loyola? How would their old friends view their new private school status? And what if they didn't belong in either world?
On April 4, 1968, they stopped asking such questions.
"After King, a light bulb went off," said Moore, 55, now the director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, which links low-income people to jobs and training. "The transformation was pretty radical in us. We went from apologizing for our blackness to being more confident and assertive."
Upon arriving at Loyola, Moore was the comedian, using a self-deprecating sense of humor as a shield from the unknown. In West Baltimore, he had attended a school run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a black order of nuns who instilled the need to work twice as hard as whites to be considered equal. The consciousness awakened by King's death would shape a lifelong dedication to fighting poverty.
Foreman was the pragmatist, the eldest of four reared by a single mother in a dilapidated Walbrook apartment. The confidence he gained in 1968 helped earn him the distinction of becoming Loyola's first black student body president. He would go on to pursue an academic life, earning a bachelor's degree, master's and doctorate from Harvard University.
March was the self-described square, the child of a solidly middle-class family whose funeral enterprise has been a fixture in East Baltimore for half a century. He would draw on the discoveries of his high school years when he launched a community development corporation devoted to improving the struggling neighborhood around the business.
The three describe Thomas as the most politically aggressive of the bunch, a vibrant personality who was dedicated to a career in theater before he died of AIDS in 1987.
On the surface, the boys arrived at Loyola composed and confident.
"These were strong kids, with strong psyches," said Frank Fischer, 81, then a Jesuit priest who helped recruit black students. "They didn't have any special program to help them. They were all very bright, capable and psychologically equipped to deal with this."
But the boys certainly didn't feel that way. They arrived at an academy that was out of their comfort zone both emotionally and geographically.
Moore's journey to the suburban campus began at 6:30 a.m., required three buses and the occasional indignity. He met March at a coffee shop at the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue for the second leg of the trip, surrounded by black domestics traveling out to the county to jobs in the homes of white people.
A white bus driver routinely ignored Moore's request for change. Then, just before Moore would exit the bus, the driver would hurl coins at him.
Moore felt white passengers were affronted to see a black boy traveling out to the county. "I remember sitting there and feeling that people just didn't approve," he said.
In his own neighborhood, Moore stood out as well. Peers took one look at his tidy necktie and duffel bearing the bright yellow Loyola insignia and assumed he was uppity.
"Somebody, I never saw who, yelled at me down the street 'White boy,'" said Moore, who said he hopes one day to write a book about the psychological effects of integration. "I never wore that bag again."
Moore rarely discussed these feelings. It wasn't the type of conversation his parents had time for in a household of eight children. Besides, civil rights and integration weren't topics of discussion in the hard-working, fairly conservative family.
In Moore's household, King was no hero. Moore remembers his father, a Republican - a rare choice for a black man, even then - watching television of King leading the march for voting rights in Selma, Ala. King, Moore's father shouted, ought to be thrown in jail.
"King scared some people," said Moore. "He was upsetting the social order. Change makes people nervous, even when it's good for them."
But the day of the assassination, the man who had distrusted King's assault on the status quo suddenly turned remorseful. Watching his father's reaction, Moore was struck by the seriousness of the event. He spent days absorbing broadcasts about King's death.
King was revered at the March home, but March himself didn't realize the impact of the man until the rights leader's death. He began to understand the fight for civil rights in completely new terms. If this legend could fall to an assassin's bullet, all black people and their hopes for justice might also be in danger, he reasoned.
"It changed my perspective in terms of how vulnerable we really were in America," said March, 56, vice president of his family's funeral chain. "If that was his outcome, that meant that no one had any chance at living in America and being black and asking for your rights."
As March watched looters storm a corner convenience store, he became terrified of the riots and worried that the violence would never end. Afterward, however, he began to understand the rage, resentment and disillusionment born of decades of inequality.
But he wasn't prepared to have to explain the complexity of such frustration to white classmates. Some seemed to expect him to be the interpreter of all black experience. Why were blacks so angry? Why were they destroying their own communities?
The burden was on him to explain the enormity of the riots, an event all of America has been struggling to comprehend since those turbulent days four decades ago.
"At the same time you're trying to go to school and be a student, you had to justify and defend the black race," March said. "Here I was in Towson and people were asking me, 'What were y'all doing down in the ghetto?' It was tense. Even the ones who were your friends, they were questioning all that was going on."
Foreman learned of King's murder while translating Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars for his Latin homework. In front of the television in his mother's bedroom, he sat fixated, numb.
Grief and fear
At school, many of the Jesuits were grief-stricken at King's death and empathetic to the black students. But from some of his white classmates, Foreman feared a backlash.
"You got a sense ... that there was anger in their white households over the rioting," he said. "I had a certain amount of anxiety after the riots broke out. You wondered how you would be treated by your fellow students at Loyola."
Foreman, always inquisitive, approached King's death as a budding scholar.
"I just tried to process it as best I could; I just needed to read as much as possible," said Foreman, 56, a program director at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. "I needed the larger context. I wanted to understand why this had happened."
Foreman was well schooled in civil rights, but yearned to learn more. Spending afternoons in Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood, where a caretaker watched him and his siblings in the afternoons while his mother worked, he met the Rev. Vernon Dobson, a civil rights leader who lived nearby. The efforts of Dobson and others to integrate the Gwynn Oak amusement park were seared in Foreman's memory.
His need for answers led him to the "holy trinity" of books on black consciousness: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Rage by psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, and Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. Where some folks simply carried them around in an effort to look cool, Foreman devoured them.
"I remember trying to come to terms with it all; it really was a struggle for identity," Foreman said.
By the fall of junior year, the teens came back to school with a new insight, style and swagger. Not only had they grown Afros, they stopped shaving their upper lips - both direct violations of the school dress code.
Afros were also strictly forbidden in the March household. "My father said, 'Either cut it, or get out of my house,'" March said.
He spent a few nights at Thomas' house. In the meantime, his father called the parish priest to mediate. March stated his case: It was not wrong to be black. This was not a fad, but a true expression of the man he was becoming.
"They realized it was no good trying to stop me," he said. "I think the whole black community eventually came to the realization that there was nothing wrong with being who you are."
Hair vs. Jesuits
Next, the politics of hair came face to face with strict Jesuit discipline. When Loyola threatened to expel the students if they did not shave and cut their hair, March called in reinforcements - family friends and civil rights activists Parren J. Mitchell, Walter P. Carter and March's uncle, Judge John R. Hargrove Sr.
The students won.
Some white students found their black classmates hip, admiring their disobedience as well as their dog-eared copies of black literature and the flashy dashiki that Thomas draped over his suit and tie. Others were perplexed. What exactly were they reading? Why the big hair and the colorful clothes? What were they trying to prove?
What they couldn't have realized was that this was only the beginning. Thomas and Moore began dabbling in Black Panther meetings and took their new status as conscious black men so seriously they began carrying briefcases to school.
Amid nights cramming for math tests, Moore, March and Thomas plotted to start a black student union at Loyola, demanding black faculty and black studies courses. The school responded by agreeing to their requests. By senior year, Foreman had become so popular - a bridge between the black and white students - he was elected president of the student government association.
The four students' awakening was not unique. In Baltimore and nationwide, some called the movement black power, a new, louder brand of black militancy. But for these students and many others, it was simply a time of discovery.
"It wasn't like the whole city of Baltimore exploded with it, but consciousness took place in subtle ways," said Paul Coates, a former Black Panther who founded Black Classic Press, a Baltimore publishing company. "There was a community of people who were looking for ways to latch onto and identify with what it meant to be black."
Their coming-of-age discoveries at Loyola influenced their life decisions.
March, as head of his family's funeral home, chose not to move the headquarters of the business to Baltimore County, as so many city companies and residents had done. He felt the only way to help sustain East North Avenue was to stay.
This choice has meant facing the grim reality of burying black victims of the violence that permeates some city neighborhoods. King would be heartbroken.
Moore, after graduating from the Johns Hopkins University, returned to Loyola for two years as a rule-bending teacher. Later, he battled poverty through various agencies, ultimately settling into his post at St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore. Every year on the King holiday, he holds a job fair dedicated to the civil rights leader's anti-poverty legacy.
Foreman left Baltimore. In academia, he avoided studying race and urban issues, fearful of being pigeonholed.
He became an expert on government policy and environmental justice, only recently returning in part to the topics that riveted him 40 years ago.
Every so often he descends to his basement and pulls from a shelf his high school yearbook. Leafing beyond the formal portraits of earnest young men in bow ties, he focuses on a single image: the foursome, clad in jeans and T-shirts and proud Afros, striking bold poses before a burned-out East Baltimore rowhouse.
For March, the photograph was a statement: This is my life.
Moore says he was declaring a commitment to fighting injustice. For Foreman, the photo was a way to show his connection to those less fortunate. Even today, he realizes how privileged his Loyola days were. Without them, his life could have taken a bleak turn.
Grounded in their rebel stance, the teens were asserting a new conviction about their identity as black men. At that moment, they weren't sure where it would take them.