News & Community

100 Years: The Riots of 1968

Part of our "100 Years: The Twelve Events That Shaped Baltimore" series

The first plate-glass window was smashed around 5:30 p.m. at the Fashion Hat Shop in the 400 block of N. Gay Street.

Half an hour later, roving bands of black teens, itching for more action, looted their first business, Sun Cleaners, at Gay and Monument streets, spiriting away clothes wrapped in plastic bags. At 6:15 p.m., they set their first fire, torching the Ideal Furniture Company in the 700 block of Gay Street.

Alerted to the growing unrest, city cops, on- and off-duty, surged into Baltimore's modest East Side shopping district, setting up headquarters at the nearby Belair Market. While one plainclothes officer characterized the scene as "pretty festive" at 7 p.m., the situation quickly turned malicious, as store after store in the vicinity—groceries, appliance shops, furniture outlets, dry cleaners, five-and-dimes, tailors, taverns, liquor stores, pawn brokers—was broken into and ransacked.

At 8:45 p.m., the evening's first serious blaze (four alarms) consumed an A&P supermarket and three adjacent shops in the 1400 block of N. Milton Street, and, within the next hour, the disturbances spread to the commercial strips along North and Greenmount avenues. Around the same time, a suspected looter was shot and killed in a bar at Harford Road and Lafayette Avenue, while throughout the area, truculent young men pelted policemen and firemen with bottles and stones.

At 10 p.m., city police admitted their inability to contain the chaos, and Governor Spiro Agnew, at the request of Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, called in the National Guard, simultaneously issuing an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for the city.

By late evening on Saturday, April 6, 1968, the Baltimore riots were in full swing. When the sun rose the next day, 5,500 National Guardsmen, 400 state troopers, and 1,200 city cops occupied Baltimore. Three people were dead; 70 injured; more than 100 arrested; and 250 fire alarms had been reported. On the East Side, still-smoldering buildings lined streets and sidewalks that were flecked with shards of broken glass.

Sparked by the April 4 assassination of civil-rights patriarch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, and fueled by decades of repressed anger and resentment over perceived political, social, and economic injustices, African-American communities erupted in violence in Baltimore and many other U.S. cities—New York, Boston, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Tallahassee—with Chicago and Washington, D.C., suffering the most extensive damage.

When similar rioting also engulfed Baltimore's West Side on Sunday, April 7, it was Agnew's turn to ask for help; he turned to the White House for assistance. President Lyndon Johnson sent in nearly 3,000 U.S. Army soldiers, a force that ultimately would swell to approximately 5,000 troops. Despite the reinstitution of a curfew on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, the looting contagion continued to spread, striking businesses along York Road, Harford Road, and Edmondson Avenue. Worse, throughout the city, snipers fired on beleaguered police, firemen, soldiers, and National Guardsmen, while taunting groups of blacks and whites squared off on street corners.

Finally, on Tuesday night, the fever broke, and calm began to return. Devastation unlike anything seen since the Great Fire of 1904 stretched from Patterson Park Avenue to the east, W. Belvedere Avenue and 33rd Street to the north, Hilton Street and Hilton Road to the west, and Pratt Street and Washington Boulevard to the south.

Over four nights and three days, Baltimore experienced its greatest unnatural disaster of the second half of the 20th century—looting and arson on a massive, unprecedented scale. The grim toll: six dead; more than 700 people injured; 5,500 arrested; 1,050 businesses looted, vandalized, or obliterated by fire; and an estimated $13.5 million in property damages (which equates to nearly $79 million in today's dollars).

"The riots," as everyone called them, remain a watershed event, indelibly imprinted in the memories of those who witnessed the turmoil. Jazz singer Ruby Glover, who, in addition to her nightclub gigging back then, also worked as an administrator in the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was out with friends and several co-workers "having a wonderful time" at a Pennsylvania Avenue club early on the evening of April 7. Unaware of the curfew, Glover was on stage performing when "the door burst open and there were all these soldiers with their sergeant, and he said, 'Outside, all hell has broken loose.'"

President Lyndon Johnson sent in nearly 3,000 U.S. Army soldiers, a force that ultimately would swell to approximately 5,000 troops.–Flickr Creative Commons

As the troops hustled everyone out of the club, Glover was thrust into a raging melee. "It looked like everything was on fire," she recalls. "It appeared that everything that we loved and adored and enjoyed was just being destroyed. It was just hideous."

On the night the riots began, James Bready, then an editorial writer for The Evening Sun, piled into a car with two newspaper colleagues in order to survey the escalating situation: "We drove along North Avenue, and I remember seeing kids running along from store to store with lighted torches to touch them off. But nobody ever tried to stop the car or interfere with us."

In the months following the riots, various reports analyzed the disturbances, in part examining the underlying societal forces that catalyzed the unrest. In June, the suitably staid Maryland Crime Investigating Commission Report of the Baltimore Civil Disturbance of April 6 to April 11, 1968 explained that "social and economic conditions in the looted areas constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites . . . Our investigation arrives at the clear conclusion that the riot in Baltimore must be attributed to two elements—'white racism' and economic oppression of the Negro. It is impossible to give specific weights to each, but together they gave clear cause for many of the ghetto residents to riot."

That September, the Middle Atlantic Region American Friends Service Committee's left-leaning "Report on Baltimore Civil Disorders, April 1968" declared that "different people were acting various roles in the disorders. Some were simply stealing desired goods. Some were seeking revenge upon storekeepers who, they felt, had exploited them and other black people. Some were consciously demonstrating the power of black people. But regardless of their roles, people knew that this was a shared experience and a shared act of black people, a shared expression of rage, grief, and frustration in the face of white dominance and obtuseness."

Tommy D'Alesandro, mayor for a mere 75 days when the riots exploded, sensed those same conditions. "There was a hurt within the black community that they were not getting their fair share," D'Alesandro notes now. "We were coming from a very segregated city during the 30's, 40's, and 50's—and it was still a segregated atmosphere."

Reflecting on the civil unrest, Bready suspects that "black people felt release after generations of 'You mustn't do this, you mustn't go there, you can't say that or think that.' Suddenly, the lid was off."

According to both the Crime Investigation Commission and the Friends Service Committee reports, the riots consciously sought to tilt the city's entrenched black/white economic imbalance. "Black militants weren't trying to start a race riot but trying to establish the machinery whereby Negroes were to run their own neighborhood stores," the former theorized. "The first phase of the plan was to burn out the white merchants." The latter study agreed that "almost all of the property damaged was owned by whites, not blacks," while positing that "this selectivity in the choice of targets seems to demonstrate that a prime motive was to get back at merchants known to have humiliated or exploited black people."

Post-riots, some merchants took their insurance money and rebuilt their businesses; others simply boarded up their establishments. Simultaneously, the housing market dove south. "What little confidence there had been among investors that they could ride out the weak market before the riots waned away as the scale of vandalism after the riots increased," contended Michael Stegman in his 1972 book Housing Investment in the Inner City: The Dynamics of Decline (A Study of Baltimore, Maryland, 1968-1970). "The seeming inability of city authorities to control it in any way became evident, and the polarization of landlord and tenant intensified. Values, which had been moving downward before, seemed to plummet sharply."

So did the city's population. People poured out of Baltimore, especially whites. The incipient urban depopulation that occurred between 1950 and 1960—from 950,000 to 939,000 residents, the city's first decrease since 1800—snowballed after the riots. From 1970 to 1980, Baltimore's population declined from 906,000 to 787,000. Left behind in the whirlwind of "white flight" to the suburbs, the percentage of black residents increased substantially. Pegged at only 24 percent in 1950, the city's "non-white" population steadily increased, registering at 65 percent by 2000, among 651,000 total residents.

Not surprisingly, this exodus dramatically affected commerce, particularly along the city's traditional Howard and Lexington streets shopping nexus, where a quartet of department stores—Stewart's, Hecht Co., Hutzler's, and Hochschild-Kohn—had thrived for decades, catering primarily to white ladies in white gloves.

Slowly, these behemoths withered and expired, their customer base severely undermined by a tsunami of suburban malls that opened in the 1970's and 1980's: Columbia, Golden Ring, White Marsh, Security Square, Hunt Valley, Owings Mills, among others.

Ultimately, perhaps the riots' most significant impact lies in something intangible: the way they forced Baltimoreans, both black and white, to reassess the city's prevailing racial dynamic.

"In some instances, the riots brought the races closer together; in some instances, they scared whites," says Dr. Charles Simmons, founder and president of Sojourner-Douglass College. Active in 1968 in the city's civil-rights movement in association with his job as a field representative for the Teamsters Union—while also attending Morgan State—Simmons emphasizes that "the riots really weren't personal: They were against the system, not individual white people. There was only property loss."

Pondering the turmoil now, D'Alesandro considers it "an awakening, a recognition that some in our society were being shortchanged, and they had to be brought in through the legitimate channels of government and commerce and education and jobs and housing.

"A lot of people thought the riots knocked us out. But we redoubled our efforts, and we accelerated the change that was needed, a change in people's attitudes—to give an acknowledgement throughout the community that all people are welcome."

And yet, nearly 40 years after the riots, Ruby Glover still laments that "so much in the city today almost brings back those memories—with the gangs, and the way that police have to work on streets where I grew up, where I laughed and entertained. There's still great fear, but it's coming not just from whites to blacks—now it's blacks to blacks."