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Monroe, other black athletes helped Baltimore heal after King's death 50 years ago

Bullets guard Earl Monroe, pictured in January 1969, was named NBA Rookie of the Year a day before Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in April 1968.
Bullets guard Earl Monroe, pictured in January 1969, was named NBA Rookie of the Year a day before Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in April 1968. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

Fifty years ago, one of the best days of Earl Monroe’s life gave way to one of the worst. On April 3, 1968, the Bullets’ basketball star was named NBA Rookie of the Year. On April 4, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain. People wept. Fury raged. Cities burned — Baltimore, among them.

“For me, his death was traumatic,” said Monroe, 73. “I was a big proponent of Dr. King; I wish I could have met him.”

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Immediately, that Thursday night, Monroe took to the streets outside his apartment in northwest Baltimore.

“I did it to mingle with people, and to quiet the crowds,” he said. “I told them, ‘Be cool, there’s nothing we can do about it right now. Just chill.’ ”

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That message, he repeated on the air at WEBB radio, which asked him to speak to its listeners two days later during the civil unrest after King’s assassination. The station, owned by soul singer James Brown, was a favorite of the black community.

“Keep calm,” Monroe remembers saying. “There’s no reason to be destructive because we’re only destroying the stuff that we have.”

Throughout the city, during those days of tumult, black pro and college athletes steered loved ones out of harm’s way, avoided giving in to their anger or, in some cases, simply went about their business.

Earl Monroe, pictured in 1970, called Martin Luther King Jr.'s death traumatic.
Earl Monroe, pictured in 1970, called Martin Luther King Jr.'s death traumatic. (Vernon Biever / NBAE via Getty Images)

Keep calm. There’s no reason to be destructive because we’re only destroying the stuff that we have.


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Hearing of King’s death, John Mackey, the Colts’ All-Pro tight end, turned to his wife, Sylvia, and said, “Aw, s---, there’s gonna be trouble.” Then he phoned Lenny Moore.

“John told Lenny, ‘Man, they need some of us downtown,’ meaning black Colts players,” Sylvia Mackey said. “Friday morning, the two of them went to West Baltimore [Liberty Heights Avenue and Northern Parkway] and set up shop on the street, serving food supplied by restaurants in the area. John stood on a stand, with a microphone, and talked.”

The pair were gone all day, said Mackey’s wife, who remained in their Pikesville apartment.

“Was I worried? No,” she said. “They were there with people who respected them. John and Lenny weren’t going to get hurt; they were there to keep others from getting hurt.”

Several days later, she said, her husband and Moore — a celebrated running back who’d retired in 1967 — drove to the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) and doled out sandwiches to the more than 2,000 people being held there, most for curfew violations in the strife-torn city.

“We couldn’t let it alone,” Moore told the Washington Examiner in 2008. “All hell was about to break loose in [the building]. Most of those people hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. [They] listened to us because of who we were; they all felt we would be able to help.”

The late John Mackey, left, and Lenny Moore, right, pictured in 2003 with fellow former Colt Stan White, went to West Baltimore after Martin Luther King Jr. was slain to help quell civil unrest.
The late John Mackey, left, and Lenny Moore, right, pictured in 2003 with fellow former Colt Stan White, went to West Baltimore after Martin Luther King Jr. was slain to help quell civil unrest. (Kenneth K. Lam / The Baltimore Sun)

During the riots, a sandwich shop that Mackey owned, in the 3500 block of Edmondson Ave., was looted — a loss he seemed to take in stride.

“When he came home, all John said was, ‘They needed us,’ ” his wife recalled. Mackey, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, died in 2011.

At the time of King’s death, the Orioles were in Atlanta, his hometown, to play the Braves before returning to Baltimore for their season opener. That exhibition was postponed 24 hours, then played in an eerily quiet ballpark before an announced crowd of 2,585.

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“Losing Dr. King was a devastating setback,” said Don Buford, then the newest Oriole and one of a half-dozen black players on the team. But Buford, now 81, said those six players “never sat down, as a group, and discussed it. We supported [King’s] accomplishments, but we had a job to do, to win a pennant.”

The Orioles’ opener was pushed back a day, in deference to King’s funeral April 9. The club worked out that afternoon, though the black players were excused from practice.

An announced 22,050 attended the opener, which went off without incident, The Sun reported, “with whites and Negroes intermingled in the stands cheering the players, white and Negro, on the field.” The day game was televised, commercial-free, by WJZ. Ads were replaced by public service announcements related to the civil disturbances.

The three black players in the Orioles lineup, including outfielders Frank Robinson and Paul Blair, all batted in the first inning, and all reached base. Baltimore defeated the Oakland Athletics, 3-1, as Buford, the leadoff man, collected two hits, scored a run and played stellar defense at second base. Fans took note and applauded.

The victory, he said, was all he had hoped for.

“Our contribution was to continue Dr. King’s fight and to make those changes come about by being role models for others,” Buford said.

National Guardsmen march along the 1900 block of Greenmount Ave. after the riots in the streets of Baltimore after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
National Guardsmen march along the 1900 block of Greenmount Ave. after the riots in the streets of Baltimore after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (William L. LaForce / Baltimore Sun)

At Morgan State, George Nock took a different tack. A star running back for the Bears, then riding a 26-game winning streak, he was in the school gym when he learned of the shooting, and his frustration boiled over.

“I was truly upset,” said Nock, 72. “It’s all about emotions. Sometimes, you can’t sit on emotions.”

Several days later, still seething, Nock and some friends drove to Pennsylvania Avenue, intent on breaking into a shoe store. Once there, he saw the looting and changed his mind.

“I thought, this is stupid,” he said. “If I get shot, then why am I going to college? And why am I running for touchdowns? I had to finish school for my family; if I get popped or go to jail, I’m through with football. So we chilled and went back to campus.”

Nock graduated, played one year in the American Football League, three in the NFL and retired to become an artist. His sculptures now grace celebrities’ homes. One sketch of Dr. King, he kept himself.

For the most part, the Morgan State campus simmered that week, said Mark Washington, a stellar football defensive back.

“We were disturbed — we’d lost a crucial figure in our lifetime — but we had instructors and coaches, like Parren Mitchell and Earl Banks, to counsel us,” said Washington, 70. “Students there challenged the establishment, to some extent, but we were never ticking time bombs.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. died on April 4, 1968 — 50 years later, key figures in Baltimore's history reflect on that period in history.

Imagine his shock, in the aftermath, driving past nearby Northwood Plaza Shopping Center and seeing a convoy of military might.

“There was, like, a brigade of tanks and jeeps and National Guardsmen in the parking lot. It was crazy, unreal. I couldn’t believe it,” Washington said. “So I drove to my girlfriend’s dorm to whisk her away from that. The possibility of what might happen was frightening enough for me.”

As he pulled up in his 1964 Corvair, Washington spotted some students gathered in a field near the dorm, opposite a sprinkling of troops near Hillen Road.

“Someone shot off a tear gas grenade and I saw a student throw it back,” he said. “I thought, these kids think they’re dealing with a few Guardsmen; they don’t know about the whole armada waiting down the road, if things get out of hand.”

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Matters didn’t escalate. Washington left with his girlfriend, Linda, now his wife of 47 years. He went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL and win two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys.

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Not far from Morgan State, the Colts’ Roy Hilton hunkered down with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, in their apartment on Kennedy Avenue, during those convulsive days to wait out the unrest.

More than 1,000 stores and businesses were torched, damaged, looted or destroyed. Fifty years later, the singularity of what happened in the days after the assassination of the civil rights leader remains.

“It was chaos, a mess all around,” said the 75-year-old Hilton, then a 6-foot-6, 240-pound defensive end. “I was angry, but I knew that outside was not the place to be.”

Hilton grew up picking cotton in Hazlehurst, Miss., and had seen such tensions before.

“I didn’t want to be on the front page of the newspaper for the wrong reasons,” said Hilton, who, two years later, would help the Colts win a Super Bowl. “I mean, if you’re killed accidentally, you’re just as dead.”

Watching the carnage on TV from his Pimlico apartment, Ray Scott thought, “Here we go again.” A year before, the Bullets power forward had survived the bloody race riots in Detroit, which had started two blocks from his home.

“We heard bullets flying all night, and tanks rolling down the street,” Scott said. “And the smoke, all that smoke.”

That in mind, he accepted a request from a Baltimore radio station to share his thoughts and calm the air.

“Because I was an athlete, I had a broader view of the world than someone working in a drugstore, or factory, or shining shoes,” said Scott, 79. “Did I feel rage? Absolutely. But the bigger outrage was destroying our own neighborhoods because the innocents, the women and children, are the ones who get hurt the most.”

Walter McCardell, 92, retired Baltimore Sun photographer, recalls covering the 1968 riots in Baltimore. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

One year later, in August 1969, Scott greeted Dr. King’s widow, outside Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she had come to support the start of a nurses’ labor union. At 6-9, Scott was asked to serve as a bodyguard for Coretta Scott King as she spoke to the crowd.

“That was the highlight of my life in Baltimore,” he said. “I walked with her that afternoon. I didn’t have a gun but, in her presence, I knew I was OK. I told her I was sorry about her husband. She was a small but stately woman with an understated elegance about her. What amazed me, given the tragedy in her life, was her kindness in meeting people.”

Few noticed, but Monroe — Scott’s teammate and a future Hall of Famer — quietly dedicated his 1968-69 season to the slain civil rights leader. He wore a black armband and a red, black and green sweatband, colors of the African Liberation flag. And before each game, while sitting in the Bullets’ locker room, Monroe read passages from King’s biography, “What Manner of Man.”

“That was my own tribute to him,” he said. “That spoke for what I felt.”

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