On the evening of April 4th, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed on the balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel . In the days and weeks following MLK’s assassination, riots erupted nationwide . These riots took place in cities including Washington D.C., Detroit, Michigan, and Baltimore, Maryland, and caused millions of dollars of damage around the country. Thousands of individuals were injured and/or arrested, and there were numerous casualties, as well . The turmoil which ensued required intervention from not only the police, but also thousands of troops from the National Guard . During this time, certain parts of our nation encapsulated the hellish images of war within our very own borders.
Riots in Baltimore
The Baltimore riots began on the evening of April 6th, 1968, and are to blame for six fatalities, seven hundred civilian injuries, and over five thousand arrests in a matter of ten days . During this interval of utter chaos, local businesses experienced varying degrees of vandalism, from having their windows broken to being burned down entirely. In Baltimore alone, there was approximately $12 million worth of damage caused by this “Holy Week of Uprisings”, though, it is interesting to point out that institutions, such as schools and churches, were not victimized during these riots . One man who was in Baltimore during this time, Dr. Louis Randall, was a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s Medical School. Dr. Randall was also one of the program’s first African American graduates, and once he heard of the riots starting in Baltimore, he raced to his office to install a “Soul brother” sign in the front window of the building . The purpose of displaying this sign on a business was to affirm that the owners “identified with the rage felt in the city streets”, and to hopefully deter any potential looters from damaging and degrading the property . White business owners, on the other hand, had no such immunity, and were forced to watch as their businesses and livelihoods were diminished to nothing but ashes and dust. One example of this was recounted by Robert Birt, an African American man who was a 15 year old residing in Baltimore during this time, who observed a group of young African American men target a white-owned corner store, proclaiming that they were “going to burn ’em (the owners) out” .
Role of Race in 1968 Riots
The reason these riots broke out in the first place was because of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the champion of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. Dr. King encouraged peaceful protest and nonviolence, he once said “The strong man is the man who will not hit back, who can stand up for his rights and yet not hit back” . Once he was gone, however, tumultuous riots instantaneously and simultaneously unfolded across the United States, with the tensions between blacks and whites soaring to new heights. With Dr. Louis Randall’s case, he knew that the chances of his business being damaged would be lessened if he identified it as African American-owned. This example further exemplifies the unrest which persisted between blacks and whites, which had ties relating to segregation, integration, and economic imbalances across the nation .
Lasting Impacts of Riots in Baltimore: Then and Now
In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in instances of racial violence in the United States. As was the case in April of 1968, another outburst of rioting and violence plagued Baltimore in 2015 when one of its residents, Freddie Gray, died as a result of injuries he sustained while in police custody, specifically when he was being transported in the back of a police van. Gray was an African American male who was 25 years old at the time of his death . In Baltimore, as well as in our nation, the extensive history of racial inequality is one which cannot be easily relinquished in exchange for peace and harmony, both sides have been so deeply afflicted by these issues that they will require time and effort to recover. The continued prevalence of the 1968 riots in today’s day and age is explained by the processual nature of memory; as we face interracial violence today, we can look back at the implications and repercussions from the 1968 riots to aid us in determining the best courses of action for dealing with such circumstances. Evidence of the trauma sustained in 1968 is still evident in the way neighborhoods, and even entire cities, remain divided, because memory is also material. Statues and monuments which remain standing today also depict this materiality, such as the Stone of Hope at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, in Washington, D.C., which we discussed in class this past semester. Martin Luther King, Jr. championed his own “pilgrimage to nonviolence”, and strove to guide others toward the same path . As the Stone of Hope commemorates, Dr. King was an advocate of nonviolence, and was able to lead others by his eloquence and intelligence, rather than by aggression or ferocity. As far as the current discord is concerned, I believe that, if we can put an end to the violence, opt for more civil means of confronting situations which arise, and work as a collective toward making amends, the wounds which have afflicted all parties will finally begin to heal, and we can pick back up where Dr. King left off in the fight for equality and unity.
- “Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassination.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010 https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/martin-luther-king-jr-assassination
- Gale, Dennis E. Understanding Urban Unrest: From Reverend King to Rodney King. Sage Publications, 1996. https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/understanding-urban-unrest/book5699#contents
- Gilbert, Ben W. Ten Blocks From the White House: Anatomy of the Washington Riots of 1968. Pall Mall Pr, 1968. https://books.google.com/books/about/Ten_Blocks_from_the_White_House.html?id=cJPCtAEACAAJ
- “1. The Dream Deferred: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Holy Week Uprisings of 1968.” Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City, by Jessica I. Elfenbein et al., Temple University Press, 2011, pp. 3–25. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/2508
- Weiss, Elaine F. “Baltimore Tries to Heal Wounds from Riots – 40 Years Later.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 24 Apr. 2008 https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2008/0424/p20s01-ussc.html
- Booker, Brakkton. “50 Years Ago Baltimore Burned. The Same Issues Set It Aflame In 2015.” WRVO Public Media, WRVO Public Media, 7 Apr. 2018 https://www.npr.org/2018/04/07/600114134/50-years-ago-baltimore-burned-the-same-issues-set-it-aflame-in-2015
- Miller, Zeke J. “Martin Luther King Jr. And Lessons from Peaceful Protests.” Time, Time, 12 Jan. 2018 http://time.com/5101740/martin-luther-king-peaceful-protests-lessons/
- Muller, John. “The Legacy of DC’s 1968 Riots.” Greater Greater Washington, 8 Apr. 2011 https://ggwash.org/view/8938/43-years-ago-today-dc-stopped-burning
- “Freddie Gray’s Death in Police Custody – What We Know.” BBC News, BBC, 23 May 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-32400497
- “Nonviolence.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/nonviolence
- “Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Non-Violence.” The Archives near Emmaus, 21 Jan. 2013 https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/jesus-martin-luther-king-jr-and-non-violence/