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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Revisiting the "Baltimore '68" Oral History Interviews: Part Two

BHW 17: May 27, 2023

 

A quote on the wall of a “Baltimore ‘68” exhibit at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. The included portion of the quote reads: “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Figure 1. "1968 Baltimore Riots," photo by author, April 2023, exhibit display at the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

 

“Sadness, shock, anger.” These are the words Black Baltimorean Kenny Dennis used to describe his response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [1] Dennis was a high school student at the time. This article is the second part of a four-part series on “Revisiting the ‘Baltimore ’68’ Oral History Interviews.” A striking theme of this group of interviews is the contrast between powerful emotional experiences and the brashness of the political response. The above quote from Dennis exemplifies the emotive aspect. He repeated his brevity and powerful articulation in his next response. The interviewer asked, “What was your impression of the neighborhoods that were affected by the riots?” Dennis responded, “Saddening. Frightening. Hell.” [2] Other Black Baltimorean interviewees Homer Favor, Rashida Foreman-Bey, Barbara D. Gaines, and Bernard Gibson provide additional insights into Black experiences. Meanwhile, political leaders Mayor D’Alesandro and City Councilman Robert Embry attempted to make calculated political decisions by minimizing emotion. Finally, two members of the National Guard forces that occupied Baltimore City during the unrest reflect on their experiences as representatives of state violence and control. Taken together through spoken recollections, these interviewees illuminate the diversity of experiences of spring 1968 in Baltimore. They also show how state and racial power operated during these events to shape individual and collective experiences.


The assassination of Dr. King was a defining part of the Black Baltimorean experience of 1968, evoking complex personal responses and a sense of urgency for social change. In addition to Dennis’s recollections, other Black Baltimoreans also provide insights into these experiences. Black professor and civil rights activist Homer Favor shows that these lived experiences included reflection on event terminology itself. He recalled that he never thought of the unrest “as a riot it was [instead] a civil disturbance.” He further emphasized, “Riots you go after people… We didn’t do that. They just lashed out in despair, it was a disturbance. I never called it a ‘riot.’” [3] This framing speaks to built-up Black Baltimorean discontent about resistance to and oppression of efforts for racial equality. Bernard Gibson, a teenager in 1968, shows that frustration underlaid this despair. He noted that in contrast to any individuals focused on looting, he “was probably not one of a few who looked at it as uh anger, instead of uh sense of uh just to destroy property, to be doing something.” [4] Gibson wanted to take part not in the destruction of property, but in the struggle for racial equality. He described the unrest as a breaking point, a point of Black realization that “we did everything you want us to do and you [are] still screwing over us and this next generation ain’t gonna put up with that. So, I think the riots when they saw that we were willing to go that far, that things really started changing.” [5] As white leaders continued to fall short on promises to Black communities, Black Baltimoreans decided enough was enough and carved out space for liberation.


The other two Black Baltimorean interviewees in this group experienced 1968 from a youth perspective. Rashida Foreman-Bey was eight years old at the time, and Barbara D. Gaines was a teenager. Like Favor, Foreman-Bey emphasizes anger in response to the assassination of Dr. King. The emotional power of her recollections is even more striking when considering she was eight years old. She reflected, “Everybody was so angry that here was a man that represented peace and the struggle in terms of the civil rights movement and this man was assassinated.” She also hinted that the assassination embodied the U.S. government’s intertwinement with forces of white supremacy. Indeed, she stated, “everybody in the black community knew that the United States government was behind the assassination of Dr. King, that’s how we felt in the community.” [6] This emphasis on shared community feeling is helpful for understanding the collective response. Gaines put this simply in her interview. When the interviewer asked “[H]ow would you describe the racial mood in Baltimore before the riots?” she responded, “I [think] that’s what… sparked the riot.” [7] Black people across the United States were rightfully outraged at continued oppression, and the assassination of Dr. King became a call for action.


Gaines also emphasized the impact of the 1968 unrest on relations between Black and white Baltimoreans going forward. She said, “I think we lost… we lost a unity of black people and white people coming together… I mean, we struggled anyway, but after these riots, the White people looked at us totally different. I mean, I think they looked at us like animals but we weren’t the only ones rioting.” [8] Numerous white Baltimoreans were involved in the looting and violence, but it was blamed on the Black community regardless. This further damaged race relations, which contrasts with some white interviewee recollections of the impacts of 1968. John Raymond Getzel, at the time a white working adult in Baltimore, provides one of these contrasting perspectives. When asked how Baltimore changed post-1968, he said, “I don’t think it changed.” [9] This lack of white recognition of the ways Baltimore changed shows how these events impacted people differently according to race. For the white, working-class Getzel, life did not change much after the assassination of Dr. King. As we have seen, for some Black Baltimoreans life changed dramatically as these events sparked expressions of frustration with systemic racism and urgency for change. [10] These responses pressured local political leaders to work toward the betterment of race relations.


Baltimore’s political leaders attempted to grapple with the political ramifications of the spring 1968 unrest. Foremost amongst this group was Baltimore City Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro III, himself included in this group of interviews. His interview requires a strong caveat that he shines a favorable light on his own role. He portrays himself as trying to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric of Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew and being firmly on the side of Baltimoreans. [11] His bias is further shown by his sugar-coated optimism about the future. He asserted, “[T]his is a great city that had a very serious interruption by riots. But it came way past. We have grown far beyond anyone’s imagination… So were [sic] past all our troubles in that sense and we’ve got to look to the future with a tremendous amount of optimism.” [12] This portrayal of the unrest as an aberration in Baltimore history is directly at odds with the mentioned Black Baltimorean recollections of these events as being a social breaking point.


Interviewees demonstrated a range of perspectives on D’Alesandro’s role. Joseph DiBlasi, a white man who was in the National Guard at the time of the unrest, deemed these events the cause of D’Alesandro’s demise. He stated, “I know that the mayor at the time was Tommy D’Alessandro [sic] Jr., and as we mentioned before, he was so frustrated because of the riots he decided not to run again for mayor and he was a good mayor everybody liked him.” [13] This perspective contrasts D’Alesandro’s optimism by connecting the 1968 unrest to his fall from local political leadership. Robert Embry, at the time a City Council Member and D’Alesandro appointee, provided a very political evaluation. He also used an anecdote very favorable to D’Alesandro’s role in race relations, recalling an event where D’Alesandro, “[W]as council President and running for Mayor [and] he got up to speak and he was asked about open housing and… he didn’t back down, he was for open housing. He was for African-American rights and it has all ways [sic] impressed me all my life since then as one of a real profile of courage.” [14] Perhaps Embry reverted to a pre-1968 anecdote to make a pro-D’Alesandro statement due to the difficulty of glamorizing his 1968 role. D’Alesandro himself focused significantly on the work of the National Guard to create a favorable portrayal of spring 1968.


Mayor D’Alesandro’s recollections of the National Guard role, together with the recollections of two National Guard members themselves, reflect a white state-affiliated viewpoint. In 1968, white army veteran John J. Darlington was a twenty-eight-year-old accountant and National Guard member living in Baltimore County. [15] His interview shows the isolated experience of white Baltimore County residents from events in Baltimore City. He was very surprised by the unrest, saying “Usually there are signs, I don’t believe crime… was as rampant as it is now, so there was to me, there was less tension in the city than there is now.” [16] It is important to note that there is not necessarily a direct correlation between crime and racial tension. To conceptualize the two together would be an embodiment of systemic racism within a criminal justice system built on white supremacy. Connecting his story to those of the political officials, Darlington remarked, “[T]ill this day, I’m a firm believer that the government, the people that ran the city, and the media were the prime reasons why that riot got to[o] bad.” [17] There is a striking parallel here between Darlington blaming the government for poor handling of the unrest and Foreman-Bey crediting the government with the assassination itself. Joseph DiBlasi was also in the National Guard in 1968, while working at a bank and attending night school at the University of Baltimore. In contrast to Darlington, who moved out of Baltimore City in high school, DiBlasi lived in Baltimore City his entire life. But even within the city, he felt a sense of white isolation. He emphasized Baltimore being “a community of neighborhoods” then and now and made clear he grew up in a white section of the city. [18]


Darlington and DiBlasi’s recollections of spring 1968 shed light on the white National Guard experience of these events. Just like D’Alesandro, Darlington stressed that the National Guard got things under control quickly. From this perspective, the response was successful in that “The riot really only lasted about a day and a half, and then it started to peer out. By then you know, the guard was up, we had the situation under control.” It is important to not let this projection of order and stability take away from the significance of the events for other residents. Particularly for Black Baltimoreans, the length of the unrest was not directly correlated with the strength of experience. Gibson, Favor, and Foreman-Bey emphasized the sheer anger in the assassination response. For some, the power and volume of this anger could have overwhelmed shortness of unrest length. Notably, DiBlasi identifies the root causes of the unrest in a very similar way to his Black counterpart Gibson. They both credit an enough is enough mentality from Black Baltimoreans following generations of oppression. [19]


The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought collective despair to Black communities across the United States. For some, this despair was expressed through anger. For others, it manifested as deep sadness. Some white Baltimoreans, on the other hand, were surprised by the response. This reflects a lack of understanding of the depth and history of racial issues in Baltimore. Mayor D’Alesandro and the National Guard interviewees project an aura of white state power taking control of the situation. For them, state intervention in the situation quickly and effectively restored order. Black Baltimoreans, however, never had the opportunity for such perceptions of civil order. In a country and city built on Black oppression, Black Baltimoreans expressed collective dissatisfaction through civil unrest. After 1968 was over, the flight of white people out of the city accelerated. It seems the unrest generated further white fear of troubled race relations in the city. For Black Baltimoreans, the experience was very different. The unrest was an expression of Black Baltimorean self-assertion, a very public statement that enough was enough and change was required. Instead of a being an aberration as recalled by some white Baltimoreans, spring 1968 was a breakthrough for the collective empowerment of Black Baltimore. [20]


 

[1] Kenny Dennis, Baltimore '68: Riots & Rebirth Collection (hereafter BSR), University of Baltimore, Fall 2007, 4, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/dennis.pdf.

[2] Dennis, BSR, Fall 2007, 6.

[3] Homer Favor, BSR, University of Baltimore, June 2007, 5, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/favor.pdf.

[4] Bernard Gibson, BSR, University of Baltimore, November 10, 2006, 33, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/gibson.pdf.

[5] Gibson, BSR, November 10, 2006, 25.

[6] Rashida Foreman-Bey, BSR, University of Baltimore, December 10, 2006, 4, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/foreman_bey.pdf.

[7] Barbara D. Gaines, BSR, University of Baltimore, unspecified date, 3, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/gaines.pdf.

[8] Gaines, BSR, unspecified date, 10.

[9] John Raymond Getzel, BSR, University of Baltimore, unspecified date, 12, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/getzel.pdf.

[10] See Gibson, BSR, November 10, 2006, 25; Gaines, BSR, unspecified date, 3.

[11] Thomas D’Alesandro III, BSR, University of Baltimore, May 2007, 7, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/dalesandro.pdf.

[12] D’Alesandro, BSR, May 2007, 16.

[13] Joseph DiBlasi, BSR, University of Baltimore, November 2006, 21, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/diblasi.pdf.

[14] Robert Embry, BSR, University of Baltimore, June 2007, 2, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/embry.pdf.

[15] John J. Darlington, BSR, University of Baltimore, unspecified date, 3, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/darlington.pdf.

[16] Darlington, BSR, unspecified date, 7.

[17] Darlington, BSR, unspecified date, 22.

[18] DiBlasi, BSR, November 2006, 4-5.

[19] See Gibson, BSR, November 10, 2006, 25; DiBlasi, BSR, November 2006, 10.

[20] See Getzel, BSR, unspecified date, 12; DiBlasi, BSR, November 2006, 24.

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