In 1968, the American Friends Service Committee released a report on the uprising sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The report begins “The coming of violence to Baltimore's ghetto in 1968 was no surprise. During the winter and early spring, black spokesmen had been trying to reach the white political-community establishment with an urgent call for massive attention to the ghetto-dwellers' need for better housing, job opportunities and recreation.” It goes on to outline the systemic inequalities and entrenched racism that laid the foundations for mass unrest. Almost 50 years later, many of the conditions described in the report remain unchanged. Read excerpts below or download the entire report here.
Night of the uprising
“Police officers, many of them wearing helmets, were ordered to Gay Street when the first calls came in to headquarters. They attempted to seal off a several block area of Gay Street and to disperse the crowds by driving slowly into the groups of boys. At 8 p.m. Governor Agnew declared a state of emergency, but termed his proclamation a precautionary measure only. The Maryland National Guard ordered all guardsmen to their armories. Later Saturday evening, a few scattered reports of looting and fires came from an area north of the Gay Street area, and also from West Baltimore. Word of sniping (none of it confirmed later) also came into police headquarters. Police sped from place to place in an effort to meet the latest challenges. The first reported death occurred at 10 p.m. when a suspected looter was shot. A curfew was declared at 10 p.m. Liquor sales were banned and gasoline sales were restricted. The National Guard was committed to East Baltimore. By midnight, with thousands of guardsmen and hundreds of state and city policemen on the streets, General George Gelston, Adjutant of the National Guard, declared that the situation was not out of hand.”
Police racism and accountability
“Baltimore's police do not have nearly as bad a reputation for brutality as do the police in some other cities, but here as almost everywhere in the country, the policeman is seen as the upholder of the white man's supremacy over the black man. Police are thought to employ brutality frequently, and the back room of the precinct house is known as a dangerous place for a black man. Baltimore has no independent procedure for handling complaints against policemen. A board composed of representatives of the Mayor's office, the City Attorney's office and the Police Department receives complaints and refers them to the Police Department for investigation and action.”
“We wish to emphasize, however, that the key issue before Baltimore is not to have less harmful riots, or even to prevent the recurrence of disorders. Rather, the issue is to improve the lives of Baltimore's citizens and to provide to black people a meaningful control over their own communities. Massive programs are needed, to provide decent housing, education of quality and pertinence, extensive job opportunities and training programs, adequate health programs, extensive funding for home ownership, purchase of businesses and founding of new enterprises. All of the black spokesmen interviewed by this study agreed that only the prompt initiation of such large scale programs could turn the city from a course of violence and despair.”