By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
The Baltimore ’68 Riot ended 50 years ago April 14. April 19 also marks the anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
The AFRO reached out to a previous generation of activists and organizers to evaluate the process and the progress of Black civil rights in the last five decades.
“The people having the worst time of it are the younger ones,” Oliver “Pat” Scott told the AFRO. “They don’t have anything to measure except the lives that they’ve lived. They’re not conscious of the fact, of the probability, their USA got started and went through a change at a certain point. So, they can’t, they need to know what the beginning was, so they need history, and they need to know why things changed.”
Mr. Scott is a member of the Baltimore “Goon Squad,” an organization of 13-or-so ministers, professors, and even a judge, that organized and campaigned on Baltimore politics for decades. Scott, a visual artist and graphic designer is working on a history of the organization.
Rev. Vernon Dobson, a deceased Goon Squad member, working with Peter Angelos and James Rouse, established a food bank during the ‘68 riots that developed into the Maryland Food Bank. Dobson, working with fellow Goon Squad member Rev. Wendell Phillips and Monsignor Clare O’Dwyer (both deceased), established Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) in 1977.
BUILD is currently campaigning to curb gun violence, but as the AFRO has previously reported, has also rallied before City Hall to close the gap in Baltimore school funding.
“They set their goals, they speak in a very disciplined way,” Scott said. “As they spread out to the groups that they’re working with or teaching, you learn in a very structured way how to present, you learn in a very structured way how to listen and set your goals. How to analyze problems and how to analyze personalities and how to stay calm and ready to conquer the problem. I think it’s a great training that they’ve gotten over the years. The most important thing is that: It’s something that can be maintained.”
Durability of Goon Squad projects has reshaped the political terrain at the national level: Parren Mitchell, another Goon Squad member, was elected Maryland’s first Black congressman (7th District), in 1971. Mitchell served eight terms and died in 2007.
Another Goon Squad member, Judge Joseph Howard, Sr. was elected the first Black Associate Judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City.
The Goon Squad made, and made up, its own elite, well-connected and well-educated group.
“Back then, you got forced into-if you wanted to get to this place or that place, you had to go by the rule, or the way things were set up,” Scott said. “If you couldn’t get into Harvard, you had to go some place where you could get a Harvard experience. And they found their way into those places and into Harvard and Yale.”
An established elite can only take progress so far, Scott said.
“Anything you do in life needs to be monitored and maintained because things slip,” Scott said. “You may have to rebuild your house, things get old and they rot, you get a new group of people who have different goals, and before you know it, there’s friction. So it’s a good thing to have an organization (like BUILD) that appears to recognize that and tries to keep their eye on the situation.”
Now a new model of activism and organizing is surging in the wake of the Freddie Gray uprising.
“This is the first civil rights movement in history that has not been led by the church” said Kwame Rose, activist and community liaison between Baltimore and the Pugh Administration. “I applaud the efforts of the activists who essentially laid the groundwork or the foundation for activism that is taking place, post-Freddie Gray.”
Technology may have transformed how activism, politics and policy goes forward.
“[Before] you had to be trained in something,” Scott said. “These persons who are getting involved now are maybe getting involved at their computer, and maybe getting educated at their computer; but they do have a shorthand way of thinking. Which is okay, if they can shift.”
Compared to the vertical nature of the Goon Squad, Rose emphasizes the opportunities in the horizontal.
“What is powerful about the activism that is taking place post-Freddie Gray, is that it’s not leaders who are leading the cause for change,” said Rose. “It’s not ministers, it’s everyday people who are working together and saying ‘I have lived this, I know it is wrong, and how can I be part of the solution?’”