The Fires Last Time: The Legacy of the 1968 Baltimore Riots

by John Fund

Last week, I met with a scholar of the civil-rights movement who was very worried about the first signs of trouble in Baltimore. At one point he looked up at me and suddenly said, “I’m very worried the civil unrest of the 1960s is coming back, and nothing about it will be good.”

Yesterday’s rioting in Baltimore recalls the turmoil that swept that city and 125 others in April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The unrest in Baltimore lasted almost four days and resulted in six people dying, 700 becoming injured, and the destruction of 1,000 businesses. It took over 10,000 National Guard and federal troops to put down the violence. So far, Baltimore’s riots aren’t nearly of that magnitude.

The 1968 riots had national political significance because of the reaction of then–Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, a moderate Republican who had carried a big chunk of the black vote in winning the election 18 months earlier on the strength of his support for open-housing legislation and school desegregation. He summoned 100 black leaders to his office in Baltimore for a tongue-lashing, “I did not ask you here to make a bid for peace with the public dollar.” He proceeded to accuse the leaders of refusing to criticize black militants such as Stokely Carmichael (who had visited Baltimore three days before the riots).

Agnew said:

You met in secret with that demagogue and others like him and you agreed, according to published reports that have not been denied, that you would not openly criticize any black spokesman, regardless of his remarks. You were beguiled by the rationalizations of unity; you were intimidated by veiled threats, you were stung by insinuations you were Mr. Charlie’s Boy, by epithets like “Uncle Tom” . . .

When you who courageously slapped hard at irresponsibility acted, you did more for civil rights than you realize. But when white leaders complemented you for your objective action, you immediately encountered a storm of criticism from the Negro community, parts of the Negro community. The criticism was born of a perverted concept of race loyalty and inflamed by the type of leader who is not here today — and you ran.

Most of the black leaders present walked out before Agnew finished his remarks. Others stayed behind to argue with Agnew about what liberal journalist Jules Witcover called his “insulting sermon” but what others called “speaking truth to enablers.”

A 2008 documentary on the Baltimore riots by radio station WYPR noted:

Agnew was right about one thing, though. Baltimore’s black leaders were agonizingly conflicted about the looting and burning. They knew it was damaging the black community and they tried to stop it. But they sympathized with the anger and despair. (Morgan State College professor) Homer Favor remembers a call afterward from his friend Jim Rouse, the developer of Columbia.

“’If I showed you a picture of one of your cohorts torching a building, would you believe it? Would you do anything about it?’” I didn’t know what to say. I respected him. I loved him. So, finally it occurred to me. I said: ‘Jim, I’m sorry you asked me that. Because I feel unclean that I didn’t burn down a building.’ These people were protesting the brutal treatment that we got and I did not participate in it.

The riots had profound political implications. Four months later, Agnew became Richard Nixon’s vice-presidential running mate. “Agnew’s reading of the riot act to the civil rights leaders who had gone silent in the face of wholesale violence . . . was a major factor in Nixon’s choice of him for vice president,” recalls Nixon aide Pat Buchanan in his recent book on the 1968 campaign. Agnew, of course, later went on to resign in disgrace as vice president in 1973.

The riots and Agnew’s elevation to the vice presidency also ended the political career of Baltimore mayor Tommy D’Alessandro, the brother of current House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. “That was the end of my career,” D’Alessandro later recalled, noting he had planned to run for governor in 1970 but now Agnew would be replaced by the Democratic leader of the state senate, Marvin Mandel. “If I was going to run now, instead of running against a Republican incumbent, I would have to run against a Democratic incumbent.”

The WYPR documentary reports that some black leaders also believe the Baltimore riots “helped trigger the law-and-order backlash of the 70’s and 80’s and a national criminal justice policy that helped put thousands of black men behind bars.” Some scholars believe the huge investments in welfare and dubious anti-poverty programs (“guilt money”) that flowed into urban neighborhoods after the riots helped undermine minority family structure and bred increased violence by unruly young men along with a drug culture.

It goes too far to make comparisons between today’s riots and those of 1968. But it’s clear there was initial fumbling by Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others in dealing effectively with the powder keg that developed after the death of a young African American in police custody. In words that were misinterpreted but sent a very toxic message, she told reporters on Saturday night: “I made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”

I don’t know if Baltimore’s current riots prefigure a “long, hot summer” of urban unrest this year. But here is hoping lessons can be learned from the response to them that will be employed in other tense cities.