Tensions remain in Cambridge Progress questioned 25 years after riots

July 26, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE -- Twenty-five years after this racially tense Eastern Shore city erupted in a conflagration of fire and passion, two things remain clear.

First, this city did not burn to the ground.

Despite confused and embellished reports that swept across the country the next few days, the fires that lit the sky over Cambridge on the night of July 24, 1967, were confined to two sides of Pine Street. And only one building, a dilapidated elementary school, was intentionally set afire. Race Street, the ironically named main business thoroughfare just a block away, was hardly touched.

And second, the fires that earned Cambridge its unwanted national reputation were never completely extinguished.

Blacks and whites go to the same schools, eat side by side in the same restaurants and sit together around the same tables to discuss government policy. Still, there's an undercurrent of racial distrust here, even if it isn't entirely understood by those who recognize it.

"A lot of people are frustrated," said Russell E. Wroton, Cambridge's police chief who, as a rookie officer in 1967, was wounded by gunfire during the violence. "I don't think it would take a heck of a lot to getsomething going."

National Guard troops sent by Gov. Spiro Agnew to impose "bayonet law" on downtown Cambridge in 1967 were no strangers to this city of 12,000 residents.

In 1963, some 500 guardsmen had been ordered to restore calm after organized efforts to end segregation in public businesses grew violent. They stayed for a year.

Local blacks, assisted by students from Northern colleges and what some community leaders called "professional integrationists," had been picketing establishments for months.

Lemuel Chester was 16 at the time. He supported the picket lines and joined them occasionally. He believed segregation could be stamped out through peaceful means. He wanted Cambridge to change, but he didn't see violence as the way to achieve it.

The U.S. Justice Department helped bring temporary relief to the situation by getting civil rights leaders and local officials to accept a public-accommodations agreement.

Four years later Mr. Chester was in the entourage that picked up H. Rap Brown at the airport outside Cambridge. They brought him into town to address a crowd of about 400 that had gathered to denounce what organizers said were broken promises by the white business and political leaders to end housing and job discrimination.

By that time, Mr. Chester had abandoned his non-violent philosophy. He no longer had the patience. "A knife and a gun was part of my wardrobe when I got dressed," he said.

Mr. Chester and about a dozen others in Cambridge formed the Black Action Federation to fight discrimination in public. In private, he and several others organized the Cambridge Guerrillas, a group he described as involved in underground activities.

Black activist Stokely Carmichael was supposed to have come to Cambridge that night. There was a change in plans, and Mr. Brown, then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, flew from Newark, N.J., in his place.

It was hot and muggy. Mr. Brown finally appeared before a crowd that had grown anxious after waiting 90 minutes for him to speak. Then came the infamous speech urging blacks not to wait for the establishment to give them their rights but to be aggressive in their protests.

Police tape recordings never caught the militant saying, "Burn, baby, burn," but Mr. Brown was recorded saying, "Cambridge has to explode, man."

Three hours later, after Mr. Brown had been secretly led out of town by supporters, Pine Street began to burn. Shots had been fired. Bricks had been thrown.

Cambridge, the little known town on the banks of the wide Choptank River, was about to hit the front pages of the nation's newspapers next to reports about civil disorders in Detroit and Minneapolis.

Authorities blamed Mr. Brown's incendiary speech and "a well-planned Communist attempt to overthrow the city government" for the violence.

"They termed it a riot," said Dwight Cromwell, who was part of the crowd that night. "But it was a rebellion. Tensions had built up over the years. . . . You can only take so much."

Nostalgia for earlier time

Partly because of segregationist policies, partly because of a sense of community, blacks in Cambridge saw Pine Street as their Main Street in the 1950s and '60s.

Before they gained national stature, black entertainers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed in the Pine Street clubs.

There were several barbershops, a grocery store, a candy store, a dry cleaners, a bar, an Elks club for blacks. In the middle of all this was the Pine Street Elementary School -- the black elementary school. They all burned in 1967.

Someone had tried to torch the school a week before Mr. Brown came to town. The school was in disrepair and blacks wanted a new building for the children.

But the school didn't belong on Pine Street. They said it belonged in a quieter neighborhood, away from adult hangouts.

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