Recalling Baltimore's 1968 riots

April 03, 1998

THE 1968 riots rank with the 1904 fire that wiped out much of the downtown business district and the state legislature's 1947 vote to prevent the city from annexing additional land as major events that changed the course of history for Baltimore this century.

In the early hours, the unrest didn't seem like a momentous event. The city was relatively quiet after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on the evening of #F Thursday, April 4. But by April 6, sporadic, isolated incidents had gained momentum. Teeming crowds gathered on Gay Street in East Baltimore and began breaking store windows and looting. By 6:45 that evening, then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew had called out the National Guard.

Hundreds of city and state police officers were deployed to limit destruction in East and West Baltimore. Many merchants decried the lack of police protection for businesses. The sky was blackened with the smoke of 800 fires in 72 hours.

The toll was steep: six people were killed, 700 were injured, 1,000 small businesses were looted or burned out and 5,800 people were arrested. Nearly 3,500 cases were tried in city courts.

Baltimore has since moved forward, forming multiracial coalitions address the city's ills, including the needs of the poor. Post-riot urban renewal efforts added some much-needed schools and recreational facilities.

But much remains to be done. Major corridors, such as Gay Street and North Avenue, and parts of Harford Road, Pennsylvania Avenue and Park Heights Avenue, still show scars from the riots. Some three decades later, the memories of that violent time remain clear for many people. Below are some recollections.

The events of Saturday evening, April 6, 1968, linger in my memory. Clarisse Mechanic, owner of the theater that bears her husband's name; my now-deceased husband, R.P. Harriss, then-arts editor of the News-American, and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Irving Taylor, near Ellicott City.

We had just been seated when a policeman arrived and told everyone from Baltimore to leave at once and to take the shortest route to our homes because rioting had broken out in the city. As we drove, the streets were deserted except for soldiers.

When we dropped Mrs. Mechanic off at her home on North Charles Street, we could see flames shooting high in the sky from fires on Greenmount Avenue. By the time we reached our Guilford home, a strong odor of smoke was everywhere. That night, we did not sleep with guns by our side as several of our friends did.

Margery W. Harriss

Guilford

The Baltimore riot of April 1968 was a long Palm Sunday weekend of contrasts from Saturday through Tuesday.

People went to church and people looted. People were curious or scared to death. They went outside looking for adventure or to calm things down.

The skies were a sunny blue in one direction and black with smoke in another.

Tulips had replaced the daffodils in back yards and federal troops patrolled streets with bayonets on their guns.

The mayor said the riot was well-planned and others thought there was no evidence of that. Many agreed the trouble started in East Baltimore.

On the streets were Martin Luther King Jr. remembrance signs, an all-out curfew, no traffic, no liquor sales and no more mom-and-pop stores on corner lots.

We lived in Bolton Hill in the city - still do - and had a 10-day-old baby, a 1]- year-old and a 3-year-old. Buildings burned two blocks away and troops walked down our street. Since I worked downtown from darkness to darkness as an editor at The Evening Sun, we moved to Roland Park for a week.

From day to day, no one knew when the trouble would end. But by midweek, the curfew was eased; there were fewer fires, looting and arrests. City people helped dampen tensions.

For many, the riots ended with baseball. The Orioles opened their season at Memorial Stadium on Wednesday.

Ernest F. Imhoff

Sun reporter

People in the newsroom stood by the big east windows, as Saturday afternoon waned, watching plumes of smoke rise. The sight of Washington's rioters on television had been a signal to inner-city Baltimore. What next, here - the National Guard? The Army? I made one more call to New York - to Bob Parker, chief of domestic correspondents for Time magazine.

Time went to press then on Saturday evening. "We want you to size up the situation," Parker said, speaking very clearly. "If Baltimore's turning into another Newark, another Detroit, we'll hold everything. If your riots aren't that big, we'll close on the usual schedule.

"Call us about 6."

Four of us went off for a closer look: Phil Evans, city editor, and two reporters from The Evening Sun; I in my sideline as the local stringer for Time, Life and Fortune.

We drove up to East North Avenue - where several buildings were ablaze. I saw kids racing along the sidewalk and carrying burning torches. We turned south on Harford Road, where a big dry cleaning plant was already in ruins. No police or firemen were in sight. All this in daylight.

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