A New Generation of Leaders Emerges

Nearly two decades after the Baltimore riots of 1968, Kurt Schmoke became the city's first African American elected mayor. Schmoke weighs in on how the turmoil affected his hometown and how it shaped his leadership.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, we're going to hear from another historic leader of Baltimore. Kurt Schmoke became Baltimore's first elected African-American mayor in 1988. He served three terms. Today, he is dean of Howard University's School of Law. He joins us by phone from his office here in Washington. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dean KURT SCHMOKE (Dean, Howard University's School of Law; Former Baltimore Mayor): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Dean Schmoke, we've been asking our listeners and other guests on the program to tell us where they were, and how they heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I'd like to ask you that question.

Dean SCHMOKE: Well, I was away at college at the time, I was - actually, just as an aside, I was listening to Mayor D'Alesandro. He was mayor when I was in high school, and I agree with him. I thought that he was a very sensitive person, understood the problems in the community, and spoke at my high school often, so he was a real inspiration to me. But I was away at college in April of 1968. And that's when I heard the news and decided that I would come home when a riot broke out in Baltimore.

And I came on the bus - and I got to the bus station in Baltimore early in the morning, and they wouldn't let any of us out. It was a - things were locked down. So by the time I got to Baltimore, we had, you know, troops in the streets, tanks rolling around. It was quite a surreal scene and only later that morning did they let us out, so that we could go to our homes.

MARTIN: Do you remember what affect that had on you?

Dean SCHMOKE: Oh, it was quite a shock. I mean, it looked like something from, you know, a movie. It was just totally unreal. Although, I had seen scenes of that nature in other cities, you know, in previous years. They had the, you know, riots in Los Angeles, riots in Detroit, New York in '64. I mean, there were a number of places that you watched on the news, but, you know, I never thought it could happen in our city.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that, because people often see scenes like this happening in other places, and they think to themselves, not here. I wanted to ask, did you feel that way? This...

Dean SCHMOKE: Well, you know...

MARTIN: This couldn't happen in my city.

Dean SCHMOKE: You know, although we're 40 miles below the Mason-Dixon line, you know, Baltimore is often referred to as an up-south rather than down-south city. There's kind of a sense of civility and everybody trying to get along. Even though we were incredibly segregated city, at least residentially, but for example, in our high schools, Baltimore immediately integrated its schools right after the Brown decision in 1955 - didn't wait, didn't drag its feet.

So there was a sense we were kind of making progress, even though, as Mayor D'Alesandro described, people weren't interacting except in the schools on a kind of day-to-day basis. But - so that's why it came as a shock. There had been no evidence in the early '60s, late '50s, of this kind of potentiality in Baltimore.

MARTIN: Part of the rage that sparked the riots was, I think, many people would agree, the lack of opportunity for African -Americans to fully participate in the life of the city. When you were elected, do you think that people invested a very great deal in that moment? In a way, do you feel that there was pressure for you that you could never really fulfill?

Dean SCHMOKE: Well, the city, because of the riots in '68, had been scarred. I'd like to say it had been scarred, both physically and psychologically, and we were - by 1988, you know, when I was in my first year in office, we were recovering in many ways. Both the physical side, with the birth of - the rebirth of the downtown area, and Harbor Place and things of that nature. And so, that the physical side was looking better.

The psychological side was still a work in progress, and so there was kind of a yearning from people for a new leadership that was going to deliver a new opportunity. So in some parts of the African-American community, the expectations were over-inflated. Others simply had reasonable expectations but definitely wanted me to deliver some opportunities that they had seen foreclosed in the past.

MARTIN: We took a tour of some of the affected areas of Baltimore last weekend. Drove around for hours, and saw just blocks and blocks of homes...

Dean SCHMOKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: That were boarded up. Sometimes, maybe only one or two houses on the street...

Dean SCHMOKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Occupied. Why is that? That so many years later, it's still that way?

Dean SCHMOKE: There - some of it is related to the 1968 and some related to another modern day menace, and that's lead paint poisoning in older homes. But the - going back to '68, one of the psychological scars was a fear, in a real sense of fear between whites and blacks. And '68, 1968, led to an amazing flight of whites out of the city, and then followed by middle class African-Americans. And so, although Baltimore had been losing population between 1950 and 1968, this flight became dramatic.

And the years, about '68 to1980, somewhere in there - I mean, it was very significant and thus, you had a lot of abandonment of property. So people would - private people would hold on to it, wouldn't fix it up. It just kept deteriorating. Then, people would try to move into it and find lead paint problems. And you'd have to get people out of there. So most of those homes that are in the blocks that you're talking about are owned by private owners.

They own three or four, not whole blocks, you know? You don't have major slumlords owning hundreds of hundreds of properties, but it's people holding on to property, waiting for the city to come and buy it up. The city has, though, you can see in Baltimore, kind of a tale of two cities. If you go to the downtown and around the stadiums, walk four or five blocks, you see some of the best in urban America. You walk another five or six blocks, away from that area, you see some of the worst in urban America. And that's been the challenge for mayors over the last few decades.

MARTIN: Briefly, Dean Schmoke, and you've been very generous with your time, what do you think needs to happen now to address fully the legacy of the '68 riots? To really help the cities like Baltimore recover? Is there anything that can be done?

Dean SCHMOKE: The most important thing - the single most important thing that could happen would be an excellence in public education. If we had - if excellence was the rule in all of our schools and not the exception, you would see more families interacting together. You'd see residential integration rather then segregation. You'd see an investment in the city by middle class as well as, you know, what currently occupies our school system, which is two-thirds very poor people.

So excellent public education, more than anything else, would be the catalyst for major development in that city.

MARTIN: And very briefly, how is that to be achieved, since you are already struggling to hold onto your taxes?

Dean SCHMOKE: Well, that - it would require a combination of investment by local, state, and federal government. I mean, forget about the testing people for No Child Left Behind, you've got to invest in folks in early childhood education. But that would be the key. One thing that could be done is for the three levels of government to invest in public education, and that would bring about a real turnaround.

MARTIN: Kurt Schmoke served as the mayor of Baltimore city for 12 years, from 1987-1999. He is now dean of Howard University's School of Law. He was kind enough to join us by phone from his office in Washington. Dean Schmoke, thank you so much speaking with us.

Dean SCHMOKE: Thank you.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. You are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.