By E. R. Shipp, Special to the AFRO
This is the second and final part of a series documenting how the AFRO and other news publications covered the Baltimore ’68 Riot.
In some cities, civil disorders erupted almost immediately after King’s death was announced. But not in Baltimore. In a post-riot report, one White reporter was quoted lamenting that fact. “Typical Baltimore Negroes,” he supposedly told another White reporter. “They’re rioting all over the country; why can’t they do it here?” What the AFRO later described as “roving bands of teenage firebombers” obliged such antsy Whites that Saturday evening by smashing storefront windows and setting fires on Gay Street. About 6,000 troops of the Maryland National Guards entered the city that Saturday night. By Sunday evening, after the chaos had spread to the West Side, President Lyndon Johnson had sent in the 82d Corps Airborne Infantry.
Ultimately, the affected area was bound by Patterson Park Avenue on the east; West Belvedere Avenue and 33d Street on the north; Hilton Street and Hilton Road on the west; and Pratt Street and Washington Boulevard on the south.
On Palm Sunday, April 7, the Sun’s front page blared:
CITY CURFEW IMPOSED
AGNEW SENDS TROOPS AS UNREST SPREADS
In slightly smaller type size, another headline said: “One Killed, 70 Hurt, 100 Arrested As Violence, Looting Flare in Downtown Area; Fireman Report 200 Alarms.”
Coverage in the Sun was pretty straightforward, including stories that attempted to explain the motives behind the unrest. But according to a report prepared by the Baltimore office of the American Friends Services Committee, some of the local television and radio stations overplayed the crisis angle, providing “a stream of ominous bulletins.”
One of the all-news radio stations was singled out for “particularly incendiary” news bulletins “reporting that Stokely Carmichael was on his way to Baltimore, and that the state police were hunting for him and then, about an hour later, reporting that Carmichael was in the city and that an all-points bulletin was out for his apprehension.” All of this was what we would call today “fake news.”
Obsession with Carmichael, the Black Power advocate, was not limited to overwrought radio accounts. Gov. Agnew, too, thought that the rioting could be explained away as the influence of outside agitators, especially Carmichael, who had visited the city in the past but was not here when the rioting began. The riot-related story that the AFRO devoted most attention to was Agnew’s public humiliation of about 100 leaders he had invited to a meeting.
They were essentially ambushed, unaware that the governor had already distributed to the media copies of the message he planned to deliver to them. He accused them of being cowards, afraid to stand up to Carmichael and to the rioters. He instructed them on their roles as leaders. About half of them stormed out of the meeting, complaining, as did State Senator Verda Welcome, that he had spoken to them as if they were children. The AFRO followed the back and forth between the leaders and the governor and the input of their respective supporters in several stories and an editorial over the next few weeks.
The most comprehensive coverage in the was in its April 9 issue. “City In Turmoil As Rioters Roam,” the main headline screamed. The lead story was penned by editor George W. Collins as he was making plans to head to Atlanta for Dr. King’s funeral: “Five dead, 3,000 jailed, troops on duty.” That story reported in colorful prose that “a four-day nightmare is gripping Baltimore with no signs of letting up.” A story by Jewell Chambers and Al Rutledge focused on misery and suffering of those who lost their homes and their businesses. On page 9 – opposite a full page of ads for Easter sales at Lexington Market – there was a full page of photos of young men being arrested, buildings burning, people salvaging their belongings and a bloodied White journalist. The next three pages were photos and stories that were pretty much all about what was transpiring Washington, which had beat Baltimore to the roster of riot-torn cities by a day.
The April 13 paper reported that the troops were beginning to withdraw. That normalcy had returned was clear in the April 16 front page, where a couple was pictured strolling on the avenue in their Easter finery and another photo showed hundreds of White Baltimoreans taking part in a march of penance for the racism that had led to the murder of Dr. King.
The AFRO had found its editorial voice on the riot by then, too. An editorial with some bite scolded those who advocated violence and reminded readers who really bore the brunt of “the current senseless rioting, looting and burning.” With the power of hindsight and the voice of the Sunday School teacher, it said: “See who died in greater numbers. See who lost their homes and belongings. See who ended up in bread lines.”