Faces marked by fear and sorrow

The Rev. Marion C. Bascom

Sun Special Report: 40 Years Later

April 02, 2008|By JULIE SCHARPER

The Rev. Marion C. Bascom is careful to use the term disturbances to describe the events of April 1968.

"When they talk of riots, they don't mean riots. They mean despair," says Bascom, 83, his brown eyes warm behind thick glasses as he sits in his Reservoir Hill home.

On the coffee table, preserved in a clear plastic block, is the badge he wore as the first black member of Baltimore's Board of Fire Commissioners.

As a fire commissioner, he drove freely past roadblocks during the days of chaos, observing the men, women and children who thronged the streets, their faces marked by fear and sorrow. As pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, he cared for the spiritual needs of the anguished.

"This was the time when all hell broke loose," he says. "This was the time when you could smell smoke anywhere in Baltimore, when clouds [of smoke] could be seen anywhere you looked. This was the time when black people who had been led to believe that discrimination had come to an end came to realize that their leader had been killed."

As Bascom traveled through the city, he would stop to speak to people whose behavior worried him. "I would say I wished they would go home and get out of the streets because I didn't want things to happen to them," he recalls.

By 1968, Bascom had lived in Baltimore for about two decades and had witnessed the rights of blacks improve considerably, although gaping inequalities remained.

When Bascom, a Florida native, first arrived, most city hospitals would not treat black patients. Black women were not allowed to try on clothes at downtown department stores. And when Bascom served as a member of the city's grand jury in 1958, he had to find a bench in the courthouse to eat lunch because blacks were not allowed to sit down at nearby restaurants.

Like many other religious leaders from the era, Bascom considered crusading for civil rights to be his duty as a Christian. He led a group of Morgan State College students in a sit-in to desegregate the Northwood Shopping Center near campus and participated in a protest to open the Gwynns Falls Park to blacks - the first of many times he was arrested for civil disobedience.

Bascom met Martin Luther King on several occasions. He stood in the audience as King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech and joined him in Alabama on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He describes King as a "quiet and reserved" man who did not seek fame but was "created and made ... to speak to America and make Americans listen at a time when they were not prepared to listen."

The fury that engulfed the city after King's assassination was an expression of grief, he says. "It was like coming home and finding your mother and father brutally killed."

In the height of the uproar, Gov. Spiro T. Agnew invited Bascom and about 100 other black leaders to a meeting, where he began to berate them for being "part of the problem," the minister recalls.

About half of those assembled - both black and white - quietly got up and left while the governor continued to speak. The group walked to Bascom's church and discussed plans to bring the city peace.

Julie Scharper

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