How Lyndon Johnson Responded To Baltimore’s Last Riots


By JOSH ISRAEL, ThinkProgress

Baltimore broke out in violent riots Monday night, prompting Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) to declare a state of emergency and activate the National Guard. This is not the first time Baltimore has seen this sort of eruption. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, similar swaths of the city were blanketed by protests, looting, and violent clashes with law enforcement — as were other cities around the country.

The April 1968 riots came months after President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, released a report that examined the cause of race riots in 1967 and warned that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Its recommendations  —  “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems,” aimed for “for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance” and “new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society,” were largely ignored as the Vietnam War continued to drain government resources.

As Baltimore and other cities exploded, many public officials and Baltimore citizens described the riots as an inevitable outgrowth of vast racial injustice, in a segregated city with an African American population struggling with poverty and legal discrimination — triggered by a tragic death.

Here’s what some of them have to say.

President Lyndon Johnson

What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re so surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.

The Maryland Crime Investigating Commission Report of the Baltimore Civil Disturbance of April 6 to April 11, 1968

[S]ocial 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.

Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro

There was a hurt within the black community that they were not getting their fair share… We were coming from a very segregated city during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s—and it was still a segregated atmosphere.

Art Cohen, Baltimore Legal Aid attorney

There had been this commission and it came out with its report in March just before King was assassinated. That report sounded a very loud warning saying that what had happened in these cities was likely to happen in other places if some very great changes weren’t made. Then to have this followed on April fourth by the killing of Martin Luther King was just, that set everybody off. Obviously not just in Baltimore but all around the country. There was a lot of tension. Whatever happened in Baltimore as a result of King’s death didn’t come from nowhere. It had been brewing there. There’s no question about that. We could see in the court system the situation for blacks. I’d rather use the word “black” because at that time it was all white and black, I mean that’s the way they said it in the city. For black folks at that time in the courts; we only had to go and visit the jails and the prisons: There were more people of the African American race there than white. Was this because somehow they were worse? We didn’t think so. We thought that the way the system was set up was to their great disadvantage.

Robert Birt, 15-year-old Baltimore resident

Baltimore wasn’t as mobilized as Bull Connor’s Birmingham where you had children facing police dogs. And of course the authorities here weren’t quite as extreme as in the deep South. I don’t think Baltimore had the extreme racial tension that some cities had. It was there – it still is there – but it seemed sort of undercover, so maybe that’s the reason why there was – I don’t know if it’s civility, but there was something. But the tensions were there.

Thomas Donellan, Baltimore Catholic pastor

[U]nderstand the antecedents that caused the riots. And, there are several that have to be very clear. The riot did not just happen. They had very definite antecedents.

Richard Friedman, Maryland Department of Juvenile Services official

Well, I don’t think it was inevitable that Baltimore would break into riots. There was certainly enormous poverty and tremendous segregation and disparity in the city, but from my perspective and the people that I worked with and the people that I knew, I didn’t sense that it was about to break out. I think the…the assassination itself certainly was a trigger— to have taken the life of someone who stood for non-violence certainly was an enormous trauma particularly in the African American community but also for me and many of my colleagues, too.

Indeed, days before his own assassination, King — who had two years earlier called riots “the language of the unheard,” warned: “I don’t like to predict violence, but if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope, I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last year.”

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress 


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