Forum eyes '68 riots, beyond

At UB, clergy, historians reflect, seek solutions to city's problems

April 05, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

A veteran of Baltimore's civil rights movement called yesterday for the city's churches and other institutions to come together to defeat poverty, homelessness and drugs, telling a conference at the University of Baltimore that the poor cannot do it on their own.

Recalling how the faith community worked together during the 1968 riots to provide bread and milk in the stricken areas and to calm angry residents, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom said that that sense of cooperation is not as evident in the city today.

"It has to be something much larger than conferences," said Bascom, pastor emeritus of Douglas Memorial Community Church. "There must be some response from the institutions of power to deal with the poverty that runs rampant. It can't come about from helpless people."

His comments came during a panel discussion at the University of Baltimore's three-day conference on the riots that shook the city after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago. More than 350 people attended the conference, which concludes today and brought together academics, historians and Baltimoreans who lived through the uprising.

Bascom's call was echoed by the Rev. John G. Harfmann and Rabbi Martin Weiner, who both led congregations in the city at the time of the riots. They said that while clergymen often differed on issues of ideology and strategy, they had a common focus.

"The need of the African-American community in those days was the thing that bound us together," said Harfmann, who was a priest at St. Thomas Claver Church in 1968. "Working together across ecumenical lines is so important in cities that now have new problems."

The University of Baltimore has spent more than a year preparing for the conference. Students collected oral histories from well-known city residents such as then-mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, shopkeepers, National Guardsmen and those who lived in the neighborhoods where fires, looting and sniper fire broke out. Faculty members researched and wrote about the social, economic and racial factors that led to the riots and stemmed from them.

"This is a major historical analysis, which is forward-looking from a university that's in the center of the city," said UB President Robert L. Bogomolny, who hopes the conference will also raise the profile of the school. "This is a much more substantive and solid university than people often realize," he said.

The university's scholar-in-residence for the riots project, Peter Levy, argued in a plenary address yesterday that many of the social ills that people saw as outcomes of the riots - such as white flight and economic shifts that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs - were in fact well entrenched before the riots.

The unemployment rate was nearly 30 percent in the inner city before the riots, and nearly half of the homes in inner city neighborhoods were rated as "very poor" by the federal government, Levy said. Thousands of black families were forced from their homes for urban renewal projects or highway construction.

"Many of the city's black residents felt trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs," said Levy, a professor of history at York College in Pennsylvania and author of Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland.

The King assassination triggered the riots, but Levy said decades of inequality may have led to riots even without the death of the civil rights movement's most public face. "If King hadn't been assassinated, the social conditions in Baltimore may have produced a riot the next summer anyway," Levy said.

The faith leaders said the first stores targeted in the riots were those perceived to be unfair to blacks, but soon enough, the anger spread to other merchants. Many of them were Jewish, and some were owned by survivors of the Holocaust and the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, said Weiner, who at the time was co-rabbi at Oheb Shalom on Park Heights Avenue.

"The chaos of the riots, the burnings, called up some terrible memories," Weiner said. "This is in no way to diminish the anguish of the black community, but people saw their life's work, in terms of business, being destroyed."

After the riots, he tried to help his congregation understand what had happened, and why. He said his message today is the same as it was then. "Our job as Americans, as human beings, is to work to make the dream of Martin Luther King and that sense of hopefulness part of our future."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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