For 30 years, people have wondered how Tommy D'Alesando III, a born winner, could walk away from politics. It wasn't the '68 riot, he insists.


April 04, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Tommy D'Alesandro III has something he wants to say about the great Baltimore riot of 30 years ago. He wants to clear up misunderstandings about how it affected him, and why he quit as mayor after only one term. And a few other things.

D'Alesandro has been thinking a lot about the riot lately. It was sparked by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., 30 years ago today.

Baltimore was among the hardest-hit cities in the 1968 violence -- six people died, 700 were hurt and $13.5 million worth of property was destroyed. Many people think the riot tore the political heart out of D'Alesandro, snuffed a promising career.

Not so, says the 68-year-old former mayor. He is proud of his actions, his leadership before, during and after those turbulent days. He is also proud that Baltimore was blessed with two days grace.

Washington had burned almost immediately after word flashed from Memphis that King had been shot. Chicago went up the next day. Rioting erupted in 125 cities across the country.

But Baltimore remained quiet, at least for those two days. Seething, but quiet.

It bothers D'Alesandro that too few people appreciate the importance of that brief hesitation before the storm broke over the city. It was a response, he believes, to the generally progressive and ameliorative policies in place at the time: his polices, and those he inherited from his predecessor, the Republican Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin.

On April 4, a Thursday night, the new young mayor -- D'Alesandro was 38 and had taken office only four months earlier -- met Lou Azrael on the street. The late Baltimore News-Post columnist warned: "Tommy, you are going to have your troubles now."

D'Alesandro knew King; they got on well. The mayor was aware that many Americans looked to King for leadership. But depressed as he was by the tragedy, he wasn't thinking about repercussions until he met Azrael. Then he began to prepare.

He called in Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau. He invited black leaders to City Hall. Soundings were made on the streets: Informers, police officers, community activists all put out feelers.

Thursday night passed without incident. Friday, images of burning cities flashed across television screens day and night.

"Everything was calm," D'Alesandro recalls. "But I was starting to feel it was too calm."

Saturday afternoon, April 6, word reached City Hall that people were distributing pamphlets along Gay Street, "demanding that businesses close in honor of Dr. King." Similar demands had preceded Washington's riot.

At 5: 30 p.m. the first rock was thrown on Gay Street: The Baltimore riot was on.

A few hours after the outbreak, D'Alesandro went on television and appealed for calm. He didn't get it. By 11 p.m. the police were overwhelmed. By midnight, 500 state police and several thousand National Guardsmen were on the streets.

Sunday morning brought a respite. At 7: 30 a.m. D'Alesandro jumped into a jeep with Guard commander Maj. Gen. George M. Gelston and rode up to Gay Street and North Avenue.

"There must have been thousands and thousands of people out in the street," he said. "They were quiet, but there was a certain belligerence in their demeanor."

Then it began again.

"We couldn't contain it. I called the governor and asked him to call the president."

At 7 p.m. Sunday night, the 82d Airborne Division deployed 5,000 troops into Baltimore. Things began to get better.

"On Tuesday I threw out the first ball to open the Orioles season."

The toll had been severe: Baltimore had not seen so many fires -- 1,032 -- since the big blaze of 1904 leveled downtown. Besides the six dead and 700 injured, there were 4,500 arrests, 1,075 lootings and hundreds of businesses burned out, never to reopen.

A confluence of forces

Gilbert Sandler, an advertising man in 1968 much involved in civic affairs, believes that D'Alesandro "was defeated by history. Not only was D'Alesandro destroyed by the riots and never recovered, the city never recovered."

Sandler, currently director of communications of the Abell Foundation, adds: "No one could have stopped the forces coming into confluence then. Civil rights, the rise of Black Power, the movement out to the suburbs. What came just rolled over him like a truck."

But Walter Sondheim, an adviser to Baltimore's mayors for half a century, believes it was more than that. He suspects the crucible in which D'Alesandro struggled during his years in office drained him of all political ambition.

"I never felt it was the riots, but I think he got tired of the inordinate pressures that were on him. It was not easy for him. He was not just the mayor. He was Big Tommy's son." "Big Tommy," Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., ran Baltimore from 1947 to 1959.

But D'Alesandro says it wasn't the riots that drove him out three years later, nor the subsequent difficulties in governing a city in trauma. Nor was he burnt-out or despondent. He insists on this.

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