A photograph taken by the Baltimore City Police Department during the civil disturbances in April 1968. James V. Kelly/Langsdale Library Special Collections

Baltimore's 1968 Holy Week Uprising was quite different from the events of this week. But the response to it helped set the stage for Freddie Gray.

Many have looked back to Baltimore's 1968 Holy Week Uprising to understand the conflict gripping the city this week. But today's events have roots less in that year's civil unrest and more in the nationwide law-and-order movement that was erected on its ashes.

Enormous economic and political changes transformed American cities amid the 20th century's great black migration to the north. The upshot was both civil unrest and a conservative backlash to it. In Baltimore, the uprising and its leading critic, Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, helped change American politics forever.

Black uprisings rocketed through U.S. cities across the north in the mid to late 1960s. Baltimore's was enormous: more than ten thousand Maryland National Guard and federal troops deployed to the city to quell the disturbances that broke out on April 6, 1968, two days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead in Memphis. A stunning 5,000-plus people were arrested (the majority for violating curfew), and $12 million in damage was ultimately inflicted in a riot that touched nearly every major black neighborhood. A James Brown concert was cancelled in part because the Civic Center became a holding area for arrestees.

The broken windows and riot police could, then as now, be surmised from watching television coverage. What was invisible to many then and remains obscured today are the deeper social and economic factors at play. Uprisings nationwide emerged in a context where the hope promised by Great Society reforms and televised affluence confronted deepening urban marginalization.

"African-Americans are feeling this," says Rhonda Y. Williams, a historian at Case Western Reserve University and director of its Social Justice Institute. "And they're also resisting. And they're engaging in protest."

American cities underwent a major demographic revolution in the mid-20th century as black Americans migrated from the Jim Crow South, the federal government subsidized whites-only suburban development, and the industrial urban economy that had held promise for black people (albeit confining them to the lowest-paying jobs) moved elsewhere.

Baltimore's white population declined dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century. At the same time, the black share of the city's population shot upward.

Meanwhile, suburban Baltimore County witnessed a population explosion, rising from less than 250,000 in 1950 to 600,000 in 1970, 580,000 of them white, according to Peter B. Levy, a York College historian. In the city, white neighborhoods rapidly became black, and a deeply segregated metropolis, separate and unequal, was born.

"In '68, it just stands out that Baltimore's an incredibly segregated city," says Levy. And the suburban "counties were virtually all white." Today, "it still is a pretty segregated city," though Baltimore County has become more diverse. In 1968, black residents were relegated to dilapidated homes, substandard schools, and unemployment rates that reached nearly 30 percent in some inner-city areas, according to Levy. It wasn't lost on policymakers that ghetto conditions had fueled the massive riots that ripped through Detroit and Newark in 1967.

"Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans," the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders wrote in its pivotal 1968 study of urban unrest, popularly known as the The Kerner Report. "What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget--is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."

Unlike many Southern cities, Baltimore embraced formal school integration and boasted numerous black public officials. Its police force was actually credited for being in the forefront of pursuing a progressive approach to black residents. But Baltimore, like northern metropolises, was soon caught up in a new American form of racial separation based on the hard line of municipal boundaries. It wasn't as dramatic as standing in a school house door. But its effect was disastrous all the same.

"Through the technologies, or the tools, of law, of real estate, of banking practices, and federal and local policies, racial segregation is maintained in Baltimore. And protected," says Williams, who explored these issues in her book on Baltimore, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles Against Urban Inequality.

Demographic changes in and around Baltimore, Maryland, were dramatic in the second half of the 20th century. These maps come courtesy John P. DeWitt of the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center.

Segregation was de facto on the surface but de jure in its true underpinnings: government housing and economic policy.

"Jim Crow existed in its southern ways and Jim Crow existed in its northern ways," says Williams, a native of West Baltimore. "We're a border city."

Forty-seven years later, the election of a black president, black mayor and the economic vitality of a bustling Inner Harbor have not altered the basic facts of life for many in Baltimore's poor black neighborhoods. The jarring contradiction between American dream and ghetto reality remains.


The Kerner Report was released just five weeks before the 1968 Baltimore uprising.

"The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation," the Commission wrote. "The President of the United States established this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

The Kerner report was a last great effort of the liberal establishment, mired in growing economic contradictions and the war in Vietnam, to solve the mounting urban crisis before it was swamped by a rising conservative political tide. But more uprisings soon erupted after King's assassination, not only in Baltimore but also in Washington D.C., Chicago and Pittsburgh. The reaction in Maryland, where Spiro Agnew was governor, would prove critical for conservative politics nationwide.

Initially, Governor Agnew offered a rather moderate response to the riot. But he soon took the lead of a conservative backlash that blamed radical agitators (that should sound familiar) and liberalism for nurturing black misbehavior. Agnew's pivot to the right came as the riot subsided, on April 11, when he met the state's mainstream black leaders and accused them of harboring a "perverted concept of race loyalty" that "inflamed" militants. Baltimore's fires were not "lit from an overwhelming sense of frustration and despair," he said, but were instead "kindled at the suggestion and with the instruction of the advocates of violence," like Stokely Carmichael.

Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew addresses Baltimore's 1968 Holy Week Uprising. (WJZ-TV / archive.org)

Agnew, in a statement that bears reading in its entirety, lectured black leaders that "the objectives of the civil rights movement have been obscured in a surge of emotional oversimplification," contending that "somewhere the goal of equal opportunity has been replaced by the goal of instantaneous economic equality." Agnew, a onetime moderate Rockefeller Republican, parlayed his criticism of the Baltimore uprising into national prominence and the vice-presidency under Richard Nixon.

"Agnew was somewhat of a moderate until '68," says Levy, who has written extensively on both the uprising and the law-and-order political backlash. Indeed, "he had won against the white supremacists for governor in the first place." But his response to the riot "catapulted him to" the national stage. "This is what caught Nixon and people like Patrick Buchanan's attention. He got an incredibly favorable response from a lot of conservatives."

Buchanan has in fact recently written that "Agnew’s reading of the riot act to the civil rights leaders who had gone silent in the face of wholesale violence ... was a major factor in Nixon’s choice of him for vice president."

In reality, the liberal establishment ordered a comparatively measured response to the Baltimore uprising. In the wake of the 1967 disturbances, the federal government had created new "detailed procedures for responding to urban disorders," writes Levy, including "deploy[ing] troops with orders that they were not to load their weapons and that they were to refrain from shooting looters." Six died in Baltimore, compared to the 34 killed in Watts in 1965 and the 43 dead in Detroit in 1967. Fewer lives were lost, according to Levy, in significant part because of the Johnson administration's tempered response.

But Agnew joined conservatives to bash the Kerner Report, saying that it blamed "everybody but the people who did it" and that "masochistic group guilt for white racism pervades every facet of the Report's reasoning." He said a more likely "indirect cause" of the riot was "that lawbreaking has become a socially acceptable and occasionally stylish form of dissent." (He also criticized "the abusive tyranny of students who ... take their tactics from Gandhi, their philosophy from the classroom and their money from daddy.")

Agnew, who served as executive of Baltimore County before his election as governor, became the consummate new right suburbanite. Indeed, he was the nation's first high-profile suburban politician, according to Levy. Agnew was Nixon's attack dog, holding up the ideals of Nixon's silent majority over the loud minorities in the streets and promoting a conservative manliness in the face of what he saw as an effeminate liberalism that indulged black and student protesters. And for many suburban voters, he provided a more sober alternative to the rabid George Wallace.

Maryland National Guard troops respond to Baltimore's 1968 uprising. (James V. Kelly/Langsdale Library Special Collections)

"Agnew helped legitimate white backlash by breaking its association with an open defense of Jim Crow and casting it in terms that jettisoned references to skin color and proclamations of white supremacy in favor of language that emphasized orderliness, personal responsibility, and the sanctity of hard work, the nuclear family, and the law," writes Levy.

Agnew has largely been forgotten since his resignation and fall from grace, as Levy sees it. But in the quest to understand the new right and late-20th century law-and-order politics, Agnew and Baltimore are indispensable touchstones.

Riots, or uprisings, are often misconstrued in the moment. But their most toxic misrepresentation may be in hindsight. The 1960s riots are popularly memorialized as a critical juncture that sent American cities spiraling into decline. But in reality, the uprisings were mostly an effect rather than a cause—an effect in large part of joblessness and unequal segregation. (Even the language isn't neutral, as you've probably guessed at this point: scholars and activists seeking to emphasize the political and economic dimensions of urban disorder have long used the word "uprising" instead of "riot.")

The same is true today, as black protesters across the country rebel against the American police state that emerged out of the rubble of the late 1960s. It is not a police state in the hyperbolic sense that law enforcement and the judiciary operate in a permanent state of exception indifferent to the rule of law (though they too often do). Rather, Americans live in a police state because policing and prisons (and, of course, the military) have, since the 1960s, increasingly become the defining feature of government. Mass incarceration, which has removed so many black men from society, has become a literal extension of American residential segregation.

"This just proves people should have listened to the Kerner Commission in the first place, instead of launching the war on drugs and the war on crime," says Levy.

After Nixon and Agnew made law-and-order the centerpiece of American politics, and recognized white suburbanites and Southerners as its key constituencies, the establishment of both parties came to regard the urban crisis and marginalized black people living through it as a problem better left unseen or locked away behind bars. "How can this be happening?" asked one young National Guardsman, cited by Levy, after policing Baltimore's burning streets in 1968. Somehow, Wolf Blitzer has been asking that same question all week. Segregation renders some problems invisible until they burn too brightly to ignore.

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