The Riots of ’68

What the violence in the wake of the King assassination can, and can’t, teach us about Baltimore today.


Freddie Gray’s casket leaves the New Shiloh Baptist Church during his funeral in Baltimore April 27, 2015. At right, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Photo by Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters,Fotoware/ColorFactory

As smoke continues to rise above Baltimore, some are wondering whether the day’s events will prove as devastating to the city as the long and deadly riot that engulfed it in the spring of 1968. That uprising, which cost six people their lives, injured 700, and destroyed about 1,000 small businesses, was initially set off by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Not unlike the chaos we’ve seen Monday night, it began as a peaceful demonstration, and grew into something much more dangerous on the night of Saturday, April 6th, after a few fires were set, some windows were broken, and an 11 p.m. curfew was instituted by the mayor.

City officials have already invoked the specter of 1968 in their calls for looters to return to their homes. “We can not go back to 1968 where we burned down our own infrastructure and our own neighborhoods,” City Council President Jack Young was quoted as saying. “We still have scars from 1968, where we had some burnt out buildings, and businesses did not want to come back to the city of Baltimore.”

But drawing connections between the past and the present is rarely as straightforward as it might seem. To get a better sense of how much should be made of the similarities between what happened in 1968 and what’s happening now, I called Elizabeth M. Nix, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore, and a co-editor of the 2011 book, Baltimore ‘68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City.

Having studied the root causes and the actual events of the 1968 riots in Baltimore, do you think there are parallels to be drawn between then and now?

There are parallels in that the makings of the ’68 riots came long in advance of the uprisings themselves. A lot of the industrial profits the city had enjoyed during World War II had started to dry up, and a lot of people started to move to the suburbs. So a lot of people were seeing their city get poorer. Baltimore had also been suffering for many decades from racial segregation. There’s a really good book called Not in My Neighborhood that talks about how, early in the 20th century, there were these laws that tried to break up Baltimore block by block, that said black people could live on these blocks and white people could live on these other blocks. So there were residential covenants that kept black people out of certain neighborhoods.

That had been going on for decades in Baltimore, and in ’68 many of the neighborhoods affected by it just exploded. And some of those are the same neighborhoods that are suffering the effects of today’s violence.

So there were these big economic shifts in the city that left these neighborhoods mired in poverty. Was there a feeling, even before the uprising began, that Baltimore was heading toward some kind of confrontation between the city’s poor black residents and those in power?

Actually, there was a Reader’s Digest article, published in the wake of the riots that had taken place in New Jersey and Detroit, called “Why Baltimore Won’t Riot.” And actually, the power structures of Baltimore felt explicitly that Baltimore wasn’t going to riot. I think probably in the African-American neighborhoods in Baltimore, there was a feeling that an uprising was certainly possible. And when that came to pass, the people in power were completely surprised by it.

It seems like there’s always some mystery surrounding how peaceful demonstrations give way to violence and looting. How did that transition occur in 1968? 

Well, Reverend King was assassinated on a Thursday night—April 4th. And in a lot of the other cities in America, violence broke out that very night. In Baltimore that wasn’t the case. Baltimore was calm. There were peaceful marches on Friday and Saturday and it wasn’t until Saturday night that fires started to break out and looting started. And then it really started in full on Sunday. So, Baltimore waited a number of days before it actually exploded. And then that violence lasted for about a week. And it’s still unclear exactly what started the real looting and arson in Baltimore. There were a few incidents that broke out almost at the same time along Gay Street—which is where we think the first arson started in 1968. So, I’m seeing this huge building burning on Gay Street right now—that’s where it was happening almost 50 years ago. That was where the arson started back then.

Was there a sense that the riots, once they got going on that first night, were going to last for a long time, or was there hope that they would dissipate?

There was a huge hope that they would dissipate. The Pats Family—their oral history is in the book—they felt so confident it was over on Sunday morning that they went shopping, and left their father asleep in their business right on North Avenue. Then they came down 83 and their street was on fire in the middle of Sunday morning. That was completely unexpected—even though the violence had started on Saturday night, they thought it was over. And that’s just a few blocks from where the CVS was burning today—it’s on the same street, West North Avenue.

Were there individuals who were organizing the riot, or was it simply chaos? Also, was there a sense that the looting was political, or had it just become a free-for-all without any political undercurrent?

Well, there were accusations of outside agitators coming in. The accusation was that people were coming in from D.C. and instigating violence. That was never really proven, and so it does seem like there was no real leader—it was more of a grassroots kind of thing. It seems also like it was very localized—people didn’t go downtown, they didn’t go after the big department stores downtown, people stayed in their own neighborhoods. And they went after three types of stores: liquor stores, dry cleaners, and pharmacies. Also corner stores.

Why dry cleaners?

Well, dry cleaners had a practice where if you didn’t pay your dry cleaning bill, they would sell your clothes. And there was a whole credit system in place—it was hard for a lot of people living in those neighborhoods to do business with regular banks, and that was part of the institutional racism that was operating in this town. A lot of people who were in those neighborhoods had to kind of work in a credit economy that was based in these little local stores. And so that was one reason that resentment built up against the dry cleaners—because of that practice. Also, there were a lot of clothes at the dry cleaners.

Corner stores also had credit systems. And while some people say, you know, ‘That got us through,’ because the corner store would extend them credit, other people say, ‘Well, but they charged exorbitant prices and they charged exorbitant interest.’ So there were some corner stores that were hit. Some people said resentment had been building up for years against certain shop owners because of their practices.

As you sit in your home tonight, watching the news and following everything that’s happening so close to you, how nervous are you that it will devolve in the way things devolved after that first night in 1968?

The conclusion we came to after our study was that, in ’68, the physical damage was not irreversible. But the perception of Baltimore that outsiders had—that Baltimore was a dangerous place, that it was a place where you’d never want to live—that was an effect of the uprisings of 1968. And that, more than the physical damage, had a huge effect on Baltimore for decades. In the interim, we’ve had Homicide: Life on the Street, and we’ve had The Wire, and the way the world sees Baltimore is based in these violent images. Meanwhile, on the street, living in Baltimore—you know that Baltimore is a wonderful place, and it has so many positive things going for it, and there are so many people here who deeply love their city, and are just so sad tonight to see what’s happening to it. That’s what I’m nervous about—more violent images, more reasons for people to stereotype us.

What can we expect in terms of other long-term effects on the city, based on what happened in the years following the ’68 riots?

It took a long time for residents of Baltimore to really trust each other again, and to figure out ways to really listen to each other, after the ’68 uprisings. I think that’ll be another challenge now. On the practical side, it’s hard to get people to invest in a place that is unpredictable, and I think a lot of people are going to say, ‘Well, is it worth the risk?’ Even though we here think it definitely is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more coverage in Slate of Freddie Gray’s death and the unrest in Baltimore.