Of all the images captured of this week's riots in Baltimore, none was more arresting than that of an irate mother chasing, berating and striking her would-be rioter son.

It went to the heart of parental responsibility in getting an errant 16-year-old off the wrong path. Located later and interviewed by CBS News, the woman was identified as Toya Graham, a single mom of six children, who said: "That's my only son, and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray." She was referring to the 25-year-old black man whose death from spinal injuries received in police custody touched off protests and then riots in Baltimore.

Advertisement

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who also is black, told CBS: "I wish I had more parents who took charge of their kids" that night. The scene and the comments reflected an immediate, visceral response to the riots a week ago Monday that set parts of West Baltimore ablaze and saw young people throwing various missiles not only at police but also at firefighters seeking to put out the flames.

Other reactions to the rioting included this observation from President Barack Obama in Washington: "It's handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals." He said there was "no excuse" for the rioting but also called for "some soul-searching" about the relations between police around the country and citizens who have accused them of brutality.

The black mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in the heat of the moment referred to some of the rioters as "thugs" — as did others, including the president — drawing criticism from at least one other local black leader. She soon backed off and took to the streets herself to urge peaceful behavior from those exercising their right of protest.

After the looting, many local citizens, black and white, were seen in the streets cleaning up the debris and marching in a display of community unity and determination to repair the reputation of their besmirched city. A local hero, retired Baltimore Ravens icon Ray Lewis, in a fevered appeal on Facebook, declared: "This is not happening in our city! Go home, man! Stay home!" The white Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, meanwhile called out National Guard troops to help restore order.

In a somewhat ludicrous gesture, the Baltimore Orioles, who had postponed one home game, decided to play the next before an empty stadium at Camden Yards, as locked-out fans pressed their noses at the gates and tried to watch from nearby rooftops.

It was all in sharp contrast to the riot that had seized Baltimore 47 years earlier in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. Then, another white Republican governor, Spiro T. Agnew, called the city's moderate black leaders on the carpet and chewed them out for, in his view, failing to take on black-power leaders such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who had come into Maryland to fan the flames.

"And you ran," Agnew charged, to the astonishment of such responsible black community leaders as the hallowed Clarence Mitchell. "You met in secret with that demagogue and others like him," he said. "You were beguiled by the rationalizations of unity; you were intimidated by veiled threats; you were stung by insinuations that you were Mr. Charlie's boys."

These pillars of the city's black community rose and stormed out, leaving Agnew with the reputation as a new law-and-order hero. He soon was chosen by Richard Nixon as his Republican running mate in the 1968 presidential election and subsequently became vice president of the United States.

The city's black leadership picked up the pieces and eventually brought about African-American representation in the governing councils of the city and state. In 1987, Baltimore elected Kurt Schmoke as its first popularly elected black mayor, and he served three terms.

He put more police on the street and attacked crime and drug use. But even with black leadership in the police department, complaints of brutality toward blacks continued. In fact, such treatment has become a nationwide crisis, and solving it will require much more than the soul-searching our first black president has urged.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement