More than 100 cities, including Baltimore, caught fire when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. That year saw the fourth straight “long, hot summer”—the fourth time black communities had erupted in major American cities, with police brutality and poverty as the front-and-center issues.
With mainstream media recalling 1968’s rebellions in light of Monday’s turmoil in Baltimore’s streets after the Freddie Gray funeral, The Root asked Paul Coates, a former member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party, for his recollection and analysis. He is the founder of Black Classic Press, one of the few surviving black-owned book publishers in the United States, located in Baltimore:
I didn’t become a Black Panther until 1970, two years after the 1968 Baltimore disturbances. My story begins in 1967, when I was a young black man returning from Vietnam, and trying to make sense in the world I lived in—trying, like many other returnees, to make my way. I actually was working to start a business training security dogs. I was about 21.
What was the environment like back then? Black folks were suffering. But conditions were a lot different then. I don’t think, for example, many people had a problem finding jobs. Maryland had a strong industrial base. Baltimore was a port city. There were active shipyards here. There were major industries in Baltimore—steel mills, clothing factories, tire companies.
But black people still worked under oppressive, segregated conditions, just like they did in other places around the country. There were places where black people could not live, but there were others opening up, like Forest Park and Park Heights. Police brutality was and is a constant, with periodic increases. It was such an increase that led to the Black Panther Party being founded in Oakland, Calif., in 1966.
The civil rights movement had matured by 1968 to the point that black folks were not only considering their place in America, but also considering what they were, Negro or black, which was a very important counterpoint to the civil rights struggle. A very important counterpoint.
During those disturbances in Baltimore, I came and went as I normally did. See, I grew up in Philadelphia. It experienced riots before Watts in 1965, so it wasn’t new to me, it was expected. Malcolm X predicted it, with his “Ballot or Bullet” speech. I was just surprised that it happened in Baltimore, because Baltimore just didn’t seem as urgent as New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. But it was. The conditions were essentially the same.
Because my consciousness is changed from that time, I now call what happened in Baltimore back then a political expression. “Riot” gives the idea that it’s unconnected and meaningless.
How did those expressions change Baltimore? Our community suffered. Businesses left. And we destroyed in a way that further impoverished us. But we also began to see a type of organized militancy, as well as attempts from white communities to prevent anything like what happened from happening again. Programs were developed to assist black communities, and you also saw black community leaders emerge, some with political voices and presence. This was the climate of the entire country back then.
Today—and now we’re talking about Freddie Gray—you have different expressions of consciousness, of political frustration, going on.
So, for example, you may have people who watch what’s going on, people who might not consider themselves political, and they express their frustrations as to what’s going on in limited ways. In Baltimore, when you’re looking at young people in the streets, they know something is wrong, but they don’t see themselves in power to define or fix what is wrong. So, in their frustration, they strike back and take advantage of the situation at the same time. So the looting is not divorced from what’s going on.
There were two types of people on Monday. The people who were looking for the tools that would allow them to work for a better day, to solve our problems politically, were not the same people as those on the streets Monday night. And if the other group was there, they were talking to the young people about the senselessness of their type of expression.
I want to emphasize this: We should not conflate what is going on here now to our response to Martin Luther King’s death in 1968. This is not the same period of uprisings as when King was killed. There is not a climate where all of America’s cities are going to be torn up—although I wouldn’t be surprised if some young people across the nation will try Baltimore’s example.
Editor’s note: Paul Coates’ company, Black Classic Press, published a book that this writer edited.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.