THE NATION was deep in the Depression that Saturday morning, Dec. 8, 1933, when more than 150 African Americans congregated on the streets and sidewalks of the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in one of Baltimore's first civil rights demonstrations.
The protesters carried signs reading: "Don't Shop Where You Can't Work!"
This demonstration was not about segregation -- of schools, restaurants or movies. It was not about drugs, crime or police brutality. It was simply about jobs. The leaders of the group, according to reports in The Sun, included a man "known as Tony Green, a number of Negro organizations and a large number of individual Negroes." Those who were there remember activists Lillie May Jackson, Thomas Hawkins and Juanita Jackson, members of the NAACP Baltimore chapter and of Bethel A.M.E. Church.
The purpose was to let Baltimore know that though the customers of the establishments in those blocks were black, their owners and employees were white. At least some of the jobs in the stores ought to go to African Americans, the demonstrators argued. Their main weapon was the boycott -- and their main target was the A&P store at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street, then one of the avenue's largest employers.
They congregated several days that first week. There was no violence, nor were there arrests. Judge William H. Murphy, now retired from the District Court of Maryland, was a boy of 16 at the time, but he remembered the protest -- and why there were no arrests.
"This was 1933 and 1934, remember -- different times. Those blacks protesting were sternly instructed -- no violence. That was because it was known quite well in the black community in those days that if there were violence, the perpetrators would get their brains bashed in by the police."
The protests went on sporadically. The merchants refused to give in, although business was reported to be off by as much as 60 percent. Eventually they went to the courts, seeking a cease and desist order that they hoped would bring the boycott to an end.
The matter came before Judge Albert S. J. Owens, who issued a temporary injunction. But though the picketing was curtailed, the boycott continued. Finally the merchants asked Judge Owens for a permanent injunction to force the group to stop the picketing and to lift the boycott.
Judge Owens granted it.
He declared that the picketing was unlawful. He held that the "object of the picketing was to coerce the storekeepers by causing them business losses, that this effect could only be caused by the violation of the legal rights of the plaintiffs and of the public law as well, in that the assemblage of the defendants' marchers and their friends unlawfully and willfully hindered and obstructed the free passage of persons along the street and was a constant menace to the public peace, and tended at any time to create a riot."
The judge declared that the defendants were "colored persons of the highest type, educated, respectable and religious," adding that it was "inconceivable that they could have been misled into believing their actions were justified."
But injunction or not, when the protest ended in the spring of 1934 the A&P began to hire blacks. The first one was Thomas Hawkins. Mr. Hawkins, Judge Murphy says, is still alive and living in California, where he owns a radio station.
It's hard to know if this was the first prolonged civil rights demonstration in Baltimore, but it was certainly one that eventually succeeded and that presaged others that were to come 20, 30, 40 and 50 years later.