Former Baltimore Mayor Looks Back

Thomas D'Alesandro III was the mayor of Baltimore during the 1968 riots. He reflects on the destruction, the city's attempt to quell the violence, and its lasting impact.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I want to apologize to our listeners again for some technical problems we were having earlier. Sometimes, computers have a mind of their own. We'll try to bring you that report later. It's about a driving tour that we took of Baltimore, reporting on the riot-affected areas. We're spending today's program in and around Baltimore. We want to explore the legacy of the 1968 riots. And next, we're going to meet with a man who was at the center - who had a front row seat to the action in 1968. Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro had been mayor of Baltimore for only four months when the rioting broke out. And when the rioting ended, he, along with the rest of the city, was left to pick up the pieces.

Today, Tommy D'Alesandro joins us from Baltimore. Thank you so much for speaking to us, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor TOMMY D'ALESANDRO III (Former Mayor of Baltimore, 1968): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Can we start at the beginning? How did you find out about Martin Luther King Jr.'s death?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, I was at a banquet, I think, at the Alcazar in downtown Baltimore. And one of the police aides came and told me that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

MARTIN: And you knew him?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Yes, I knew him. I had the opportunity of spending a whole day with him here in Baltimore when I was city council president. Could I tell that story?

MARTIN: Please do.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, there was a black colonel in the Baltimore City Police Department by the name of Box Harris. He was the highest-ranking black officer at that time. He gave me a call, and he said he has a request for me. I said, what's that? He says he's in charge of the security for Martin Luther King who was in the city for that day and that a couple of minutes before that, Martin Luther King had asked Box Harris if he knew me, Tommy D'Alesandro, who was then - I was then the president of the city council. He said, yes. He said, will you try to contact him? I'd like to meet him, and I want to talk to him.

So Box Harris called me. And he made this request. I said, are you kidding me? Martin Luther King wants to talk to me? He wants to meet me? He said, that's right. I said, well, is he going to come to the city hall? He said, no, no fanfare. He says, I'll pick you up in about 15 minutes. And then I met - I went to the Lord Baltimore hotel where he had an entourage, and he had his rooms. And he took me into a suite, took me into his parlor. And it was just him and I, a long couch. He sat at one end of the couch. I sat at the other.

And we spoke for about an hour. All of it concerned itself with the civil rights bill that was pending in the city council of Baltimore. He was well-versed and well-briefed on it. And was asking me a ton of questions and some intricate questions about the wordage in the bill, and back and forth for about an hour.

MARTIN: Do you remember what your impressions of him were?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, I'll tell you what, he was very, very kind to me. He was a very kind man. He was - no pretense about him, he was just a regular guy. You could tell that you were in the presence of somebody who was extra special.

MARTIN: You know, you were both very young men with a lot of responsibility on your shoulders...

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Right.

MARTIN: At that time. And I wondered if you think you connected on that level.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, I'll tell you - he was more aggressive during the conference than I was. I was reacting to everything he - all the questions he had, and I got a sense that he was well- briefed, and, you know, well-versed on the problems in Baltimore as we felt in dealing with the civil rights legislation.

MARTIN: Do you remember what went through your mind when you found out that he had been killed?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well first of all, that night that I met him - that night, I was with him at a banquet for the evening. So we got together on a more friendly basis, friendlier basis. So when I got the news, a little curl-like went through my stomach. I felt like a body blow. I felt hurt that I lost a real friend. And then I realized that I had a tremendous responsibility for the aftermath - what may happen. Because by the time I got the news, which was about 15 minutes after the assassination, some of the cities in the nation were already up in flame.

MARTIN: In fact, this happened on a Thursday night...

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Thursday night.

MARTIN: And Baltimore actually remained peaceful for a time.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: We had no problem - we had no problem on Thursday night, and we had no problem all day Friday.

MARTIN: At that point, did you think that you might escape any difficulties altogether?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, I had all the activist groups, all the groups, city agencies that had contact the public, I had them acting as antennas - all the police department, the informers, all the civic active crews, the community action agency, the fire departments at different locations throughout the city. We had - we were just trying to search around to find out if there are any rumblings, any discontent, any concern that we may have, and contacted the ministerial alliances and the churches.

MARTIN: Hoping to make it to Sunday. Hold on, Minister Mayor, we're going to take a short break. I hope you'll stay with us for a couple more minutes.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Sure.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with the former mayor of Baltimore, Tommy D'Alesandro III. He was the mayor of Baltimore during the '68 riots. We're taking a look back at the legacy of the '68 riots by looking at one city, that's Baltimore. We'll take a short break and when we come back, more on the legacy of the '68 riots. This is Tell Me More from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. More on the legacy of the 1968 riots, as seen through the lens of one city, Baltimore. We're continuing now our conversation with Thomas D'Alesandro III. He was the mayor of Baltimore during the '68 riots. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for staying with us.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: OK. You know, we left off...

MARTIN: We were talking about...

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Going into Friday.

MARTIN: Going into Friday, and then Saturday night is when things started to happen.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, right after Friday was completed, I made arrangements to meet with Governor Agnew down at Annapolis. It was myself, and Governor Agnew, and Police Commissioner Pomerleau and the General of the Maryland National Guard, General Galston. And at that time, I had the police commissioner and some of my staff give a report to the governor of what we found.

And we found absolutely nothing. Everything was calm. But I did say to the governor - I said, governor, it's too calm. I was just very apprehensive. I was afraid it was too calm. But that was Saturday morning, and things were still good. And I left the governor's office about 11:30, 12 o'clock. When I got back into Baltimore, about 1 o'clock, I went to the city hall. And then about 1:30 to 2 o'clock, we got some information that some pamphlets, brochures were being distributed along Gay Street, saying in effect to close your store in reverence, in respect to Martin Luther King.

And the inference was - or else. So we rushed police in that area, and things were still relatively calm until 5:30 that night. At 5:30 that night, a brick was thrown through one of the stores on Gay Street, and the riot started.

MARTIN: And what do you think - and recognizing that a lot of times people have different points of view about this, but what do you think race relations, if I can use that term, were like before the riots? How do you remember?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, I can only say this, that I was the president of the supervised elections for six years. I was a member and president for six years. So I had an in-depth knowledge of the power structure in the black community, the people that I had to deal with - the Afro-American, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Ministerial Alliance, and all the black activist groups. So in my involvement with them, being invited to some of their functions, I realized that I was the only white person in the audience.

There were no whites other than myself. And then when I would go to a white function, the banquets in the white part of the city, there'd be about a thousand people there, maybe three or four would be black. There was absolutely no communication between the races, none whatsoever. It was a segregated city. It was a Southern city.

MARTIN: Do you remember while all of the rioting was going on - I mean, obviously you're just trying to stay ahead of it at that point, but did you ever see a time when it would end, or what impact it would have on the city? I was just kind of wondering what your worst-case scenario was, and did it come to pass?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Let me put it to you in this respect - that during the course of the riots, I never saw, I never heard, and I could almost vouch that there was not one black leader, whether it be in the business sector, in the church sector, in the academic community, whatever the case may be, where the black leadership - none of them participated in this riot. And none - and all of them tried to stop it.

But it was beyond them. It was beyond them. We were dealing with really an unknown segment of our community, mostly young. But we had good race relationships. I inherited good race relationships from the former mayor and former Governor McKeldin. Governor McKeldin had tremendous respect in the black community. And when I became mayor, I inherited that. And in my performance as president of the city council, I thought I enhanced it. So we had a good relationship.

I appointed the first black city solicitor of the city of Baltimore. First member of the Board of Estimates was George Russell. The first member of the Fire Board, black member of the Fire Board, Reverend Baskin. The first member of the Zoning Board, Judge Baylor. First member of the black community on the Park and Recreations Board, Dr. Ray. And it was like that up and down the line. It was opened up.

And we had what I thought was an excellent relationship. We had tremendous - and an excellent relationship with the Black Panthers, with the Soul School people. I mean, it was - it was nothing of a, what you'd call a confrontational or an adverse feeling about it. It was give and take. They knew they could come and talk with me, and I was there to listen to them and to see if the things I can do to help. But...

MARTIN: When you think - you were saying earlier that the city, like a lot of cities in the South and, frankly in the North, was segregated at that time.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: No question about it, no question about it.

MARTIN: When you think about the impact that the riots had on relationships in the city, what do you think? What do you think the legacy of it was - of them were?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, a lot of people looked at the riots as though it was something that was strange to them, and it was being done by the blacks against the city. And therefore, they resented it. It was evidenced by the comments made by Governor Agnew at the time, when he bawled out the black leadership in his office. Up until that time, Governor Agnew was a friend of mine, was and is a friend of mine. I was at his funeral. But he was terrific in the early parts of the riot because he gave me carte blanche in calling him as far as calling out the National Guard.

And when we had to call out federal troops, I couldn't make the call. It had to come from the Governor, and I called Governor Agnew. He called the president to get federal troops into Baltimore. So he was always there at my beck and call. But he made that statement that eventually made him the vice-president of the nation. Nixon picked him as a vice-president candidate.

And it sort of put into posture what a lot of the people were thinking, that this should have been - should of have never happened, and the blacks are responsible. The black leadership is responsible. Nothing could be further from the truth.

MARTIN: Finally, sir, you know politics is sort of a family business. Your father served in Congress. Your father was also a former mayor of Baltimore. Your sister is currently serving as Speaker of the House of Representatives. She's the first woman to serve in that role. When you think back on it, I wonder, were there things that political leadership could have done differently to have a different outcome back then?

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Well, I don't believe - I don't say this braggadociosly, but I don't believe there's any white man in Baltimore that knew more about the black community than I did. I lived in it politically for about - almost 15 years as far as supervising elections, opening up voter registration throughout the black community, the civil rights bill that we passed, and the first one south of the Mason-Dixon line. And we had a manifestation of concern in the neighborhood, in the mayor's station as a community action agency under the charge of former Congressman Parren Mitchel, at that time was my head of the Community Action Agency.

We were rolling. We were doing good. We thought we were in great shape. And notwithstanding all of that, we still weren't strong enough to stop the riots. I don't think there was anything anybody could do to stop them.

MARTIN: Tommy D'Alesandro III was the mayor of Baltimore during the 1968 riots. He was kind enough to join us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mayor D'ALESANDRO: Thank you.

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