Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore 1968

Oh, Baltimore Man, it's hard just to live, just to live -- Randy Newman

This isn't the first time Baltimore has been burning or occupied by the military. I'm not old enough to remember the white racist Pratt Street riots of 1861. 

But I do remember, almost 47 years ago to the day, when Baltimore and 125 other cities, including my home town of Chicago, exploded in rage in direct response to the murder of another black man -- Dr. Martin Luther King.

Spiro T. Agnew, then Republican Governor of Maryland, called out thousands of National Guard troops and 500 Maryland State Police to occupy the inner-city. When it was determined that his mainly-white military force could not control the rebellion, even after leaving six dead, 700 injured, and 5,800 black people arrested, the governor requested Federal troops from President Johnson. 

Agnew, riding the wave of racist white reaction that followed, went on the be elected Richard Nixon's vice-president as part of Nixon's 1968 "Southern Strategy". He would later be forced to resign in disgrace and was convicted in a bribery scandal.

Baltimore 1968 -- Guess who's coming to dinner.
Between World War II and 1968, Baltimore had changed demographically, mainly due to white flight. The total population remained constant, but the black population had grown and the white population shrunk (both by about 200,000). Whites abandoned the city in favor of segregated suburban Baltimore County. Black communities were left with a collapsed tax base, segregated sub-par housing and schooling, high rates of infant mortality, and more crime and brutal policing. They also suffered disproportionately from job loss due to the collapse of Baltimore's manufacturing sector. Black unemployment was more than double the national rate, and even higher in especially poor communities and for black youth. Those who did have jobs were paid less and worked in unsafe conditions. A lot of this is documented in the TV show The Wire and in the book, "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City".

Four decades later, when I visit the city's schools and neighborhoods, I find conditions in the poorest black communities basically unchanged and in many ways worse than they were in '68. While the inner Harbor area has been redeveloped as a base for expanding gentrification and tourism and the Orioles given Camden Yards baseball stadium, the economic, political and social chasm between black and white, rich and poor Baltimore has only widened. 

The death of Freddy Gray while in police custody two weeks ago, like the murder of Dr. King 47 years ago, was simply the inevitable ignition point for a tinder box that was bound to explode sooner of later. I'm surprised it took so long. I doubt it will be the last time. 

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