Flames of Cambridge Stoked by Decades of Division In the summer of 1967, violence broke out in black neighborhoods across the country, even in small cities and towns like Cambridge, Md. In July 1967, arsonists set a fire that spread through two blocks in Cambridge, where racial tensions had been simmering for years.
NPR logo Flames of Cambridge Stoked by Decades of Division

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The summer of 1967 is often referred to as the longest of the long, hot summers. Race riots swept through 163 cities and towns across the country. Sharing the headlines was Newark and Detroit, where the town of just 13,000 on Maryland's eastern shore called Cambridge. It was here that small-town life, small-town attitudes and small-town troubles would intersect with national politics at the highest levels.

President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Governor Spiro Agnew would all become involved, as with the black militant, H. Rap Brown. And the struggle in Cambridge would shape American law and politics.

It's unsettling to find that the main street in Cambridge is called Race Street, although the name has nothing to do with ethnicity. Still, it divides blacks from whites. On the one side, you see a picturesque harbor, a town square and a courthouse.

Cambridge is the seat of Dorchester County, the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, and it was a stop along the underground railway she founded. The county is a place with a long civil rights history. By 1967, there were about two or three thousand blacks living in Cambridge.

But while they were a few back policemen and a black alderman, it was a deeply segregated town. Enez Stafford Grubb grew up here.

Ms. ENEZ STAFFORD GRUBB (Resident, Cambridge): My entire school life was in a segregated system. And, of course, we lacked of things. Whenever we receive a textbook, it was a used textbook, and there was always a slip in the inside cover and it was always completed with the names of white students by the time we got it.

LYDEN: Sylvia Windsor is a white copy editor at the Daily Banner. She's lived in the area all her life.

Ms. SYLVIA WINDSOR (Copy Editor, Daily Banner; Resident, Cambridge): We used to come in town on Friday nights when we (unintelligible) to the country. And one side of Race Street was for the blacks and one side of the other side was whites. And they never crossed over and we never either. And you grew up accepting that, you know. I was never prejudiced, I don't think. My family wasn't. My mother and father both worked alongside of black people in Phillips Packing Company and shirt factories and wherever they went. So I wasn't taught to be prejudiced.

LYDEN: Russell Smith was mayor in Cambridge from 1953 to 1960. His memory of race relation is nostalgic.

Mr. RUSSELL SMITH Jr. (Former Mayor, Cambridge, Dorchester Country, Maryland): In my home we had lady who was a cook. And she had her room in that house and she lived with us, and she was black as she could be. And that's when I was a kid, I can remember every night when I went to bed, my father would say, all right, it's time for you children to go to bed. Kiss your grandmother. Kiss your mother. Kiss Annie(ph). Every night, before I went to bed I'll kiss her good night.

LYDEN: But change was coming to Cambridge. Historian Peter Levy has written a book about the town called "Civil War on Race Street."

Mr. PETER LEVY (Historian; Author "Civil War on Race Street"): Unlike the rest of America, Cambridge was a pretty poor state in the early 1960s. They have had a very large employer, a packing company, that had collapsed in the early 1950s and it was really a shell of itself by 1960s so there was really very high unemployment by 1960 standards.

And then, somewhat by accident, a freedom writer showed up in the town in the early 1962. And that catalyzed two, three years, a very vibrant civil rights movement. And this included protests in the streets like in other communities, mass meetings, political activism, and confrontations between whites and blacks who chose to defend themselves when whites challenge them. And ultimately the National Guard was brought in and stayed there for over a year.

LYDEN: Gloria Richardson emerged as the black community's most important leader. Her family was from the Cambridge black establishment and owned a drug store and sent her to Howard University. Back in the '60s, she was attracted to the increasingly radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNICC.

Ms. GLORIA RICHARDSON (Human Rights Activist): Because they moved in to communities and talked to people and showed them how to organize in a nonviolent tactics. And part of what their success would be, as far as the national was concerned, is the community began to support them. So they came in and organized a high school and grammar school students, who, for about four or five months with their parents backing them, shut down the town, really, at that point.

LYDEN: They shut it down with demonstrations, picketing and sit-ins. Cambridge resident, Lemuel Chester, met me at the nerve center of this activity.

Mr. LEMUEL CHESTER (Resident, Cambridge): And this is the historical Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church where I was a member for 40 years and this is where we would come back after demonstrating.

(Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday.

Ms. GRUBB: The church would just be packed and the pulpit would have people in it and people would just be standing all around, picking up just about every space, some sitting on the floors, some standing in the vestibule, with the front door open because they couldn't get in and of course, the balcony would be loaded with people.

LYDEN: That was Enez Stafford Grubb, who's now an associate pastor at the church. But the civil rights protest organized at Bethel Church didn't told was end peacefully. White police attacked the demonstrators. Some blacks committed acts of vandalism. And both black and white were arming themselves and using those weapons against each other. Luckily, no one was killed.

Alarmed at the situation, so close to the nation's capital, both President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, intervened in Cambridge. RFK summoned activists Gloria Richardson and white community leaders to Washington to try to arrange a truce.

Ms. RICHARDSON: At that time, the Kennedy administration was going around and were all talking about, you know, democracy in America. They really didn't want anything right next door to them. And by the second year, the national press was there and it was in the papers almost every day, and that didn't look very good.

And I think that's really why Bob Kennedy do got involved. Although I think after he got involved, he began to equate that with how they treated Irish when they first came to America in terms of being poor and stepped on. And we went back and forced forced the justice department negotiating. First time I saw him he was in an open shirt and I think he knows, and I just thought he was just some sort in the office. Then when we went in and sat behind the desk we realized, you know, he wanted just to clarify.

LYDEN: Bobby Kennedy suggested the town adapt an equal rights amendment to its charter. It passed through the town council but Richardson urged blacks to boycott the referendum on it, knowing it couldn't survive.

The next year, the Federal Civil Rights Act became law. Across America, there was agitation for equal rights and jobs, housing, and schools. By 1967, Gloria Richardson had moved to New York and met the young black militant, H. Rap Brown. She invited him to visit Cambridge and gave a stump speech he'd been delivering around the country.

Mr. H. RAP BROWN (Political Activist): We say to the leaders, how can you tell black people to be nonviolently(ph) and at the same time condone the sending of white killers into the black communities. It's something wrong. We are going to control our communities by any means necessary. We build the country up. We'll burn it down. You can quote that. I say violence is necessary. Violence is a part of America's culture. It is as American as cherry pie.

LYDEN: Lemuel Chester met Brown on the night of July 24th and he came into Cambridge from Washington.

Mr. CHESTER: He got in town about 6:30 or 7 and he gave his speech right across the street where we were standing on the corner of Pine and Cedar, in front of what was then the old Sinclair(ph) Pharmacy. They got on top of a car and gave a speech for about an hour and a half. And the speech was freedom is not given and that you have two, I'll take it. He sai,d if Cambridge don't come around, Cambridge needs to burned down.

LYDEN: A few blocks away, says Lemuel Chester, shots rang out. A white police officer was hit by a ricocheting bullet as was H. Rap Brown.

Mr. CHESTER: And it was going to be a showdown. And a showdown ended up with a shooting and I mean, shooting just like a war. And Rap Brown got shot over the top of his forehead and we were able to secure a way to get him out of town. He's gone. He's gone, nothing to do with the fire. He's gone.

LYDEN: That fire was the blaze that someone started at the Pine Street Elementary School. It spread but the all-white volunteer rescue fire company, citing fears of being attacked, refused to go into the Second Ward and put it out. Enez Grubb and Lemuel Chester.

Ms. GRUBB: I remember I was running late going up there and my girlfriend came to my house. She said, Enez, the whole Second Ward is burning. So I left right away and when I got up there, everything was ablaze. It got to school and the Elks building, because it was jumping back and forth across the street to you. It was devastating.

Mr. CHESTER: And I've never seen a fire like it before in my life. The fire went from one side of the street, it hit these wires and it burned all the buildings on that side, and two or three buildings on this side, and I think it even burned this Elks Lodge.

Ms. GRUBB: The firemen were refusing to come out. So the men finally convinced them to let them have a fire truck. Now you could imagine men never being allowed to join the fire company, trying to get one fire truck with all of this fire, all of these buildings starting to burn. And it was hurtful and frightening to see these men on this truck, inexperienced men trying to get the water out. But they got the water finally coming through the hose, but it was too late then.

LYDEN: The blaze had consumed two square blocks and more than 20 buildings, including the school, a church and a dance hall whose owner ruined committed suicide soon after.

Within hours of the Cambridge fire, federal authorities launched a manhunt for H. Rap Brown, who was charged with inciting a riot, rioting and arson. The white political establishment and the nation's press fingered him. The morning after the fire, Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew broke off his vacation and rushed to Cambridge. He said of Brown, I hope they pick him up soon, lock him up and throw away the key.

Historian Peter Levy takes up the story.

Professor PETER LEVY (History, York College): Spiro Agnew who was the governor of Maryland at that time was vacationing in Ocean City, which isn't that far from Cambridge. And he immediately comes to the town and holds a news conference and, you know, he reaffirms that Brown is the cause of this riot.

Gerald Ford, who was Republican minority leader at that time, is in part responsible for adding an amendment to the last civil rights bill known as the Brown Amendment or Brown Riot or that made it illegal to cross state boundaries to cause a riot.

LYDEN: Several historians see Cambridge as a turning point for Agnew who had enjoyed some black support before then. He went on to take a tough law and order stance against rioters the next year in Baltimore, and that caught the attention of Richard Nixon, who would choose the Maryland governor as his running mate.

Historian Peter Levy says Cambridge had significance that went far beyond the career of Spiro Agnew.

Prof. LEVY: I think from the broader picture what made Cambridge significant was that there were lots of people, not just, say, people on one side of the political spectrum, who believe that in one way or another there was a connection between radicalism or black power in urban rioting.

And here, they had the smoking gun. Someone had delivered a speech, called for people to burn things down and a fire and a riot took place. And afterwards, most people didn't pay that much attention to the details of the exact sequence of the events.

LYDEN: On the 28th of July 1967, just days after the Cambridge disturbance, President Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders - better known as the Kerner Commission, for its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner.

Johnson initially believed outside agitators, even foreigners, were to blame for the riots. But the Kerner Commission found that the problems were homegrown. It would famously conclude that America was moving toward two societies - one black, one white - separate and unequal.

A staff report from that commission, leaked to The Washington Post, said, what happened in Cambridge was never a riot at all. The report blamed the white police chief for letting the fire burn. While it may be emotionally satisfying to think that Brown came and that therefore there was a riot, the report said, and it may be simpler for the public to grasp, the facts are more complex and quite different. A good deal of the difficulty stems from the strong segregationist attitudes held by local officials.

The report went on to specifically blame the police chief for a, quote, "emotional binge and a desire to kill Negroes." Somehow news of this finding never made it back to Cambridge. While the report confirmed what blacks already knew, to this day most white people in the town believe H. Rap Brown was to blame.

Bob Parks runs a barbershop on Gay Street, right on the old demonstration route.

Mr. BOB PARKS (Business Owner, Cambridge): We had a problem here for years, and it was people they brought in that bring trouble. If we were spotted as one of the town's, it wasn't many local in it. The black and white here get along, except for troublemakers. And that's - they target this town like they did down South. And some instigators - and Rap Brown, Gloria Richardson, they ought to shot both of them when they come in town. I shouldn't say that. But they would to come here to cause trouble. Most of our local people, we get along.

LYDEN: But Sylvia Windsor worries that the 1967 strife still taints Cambridge.

Ms. SYLVIA WINDSOR (Resident, Cambridge): Well, the legacy is that it painted us and made us look like one of the worst cities in the United States and I don't think that that will ever go away.

LYDEN: But Cambridge has moved on. Today when most Americans think of the riots of the summer of 1967, they think of Newark and Detroit. Few people remembered Cambridge, Maryland. The newest big thing is a Hyatt Hotel and some hopeful tourist boutiques along Race Street.

But if you go there and ask Lemuel Chester or anyone else from the Second Ward if it's really different, well, he'd give this answer.

Mr. CHESTER: We still have a white Elks, a black Elks. We still have white Masons, a black Masons. We have a white American Legion, a black American Legion. So you know, that speaks for itself. You know, in the county courthouse, if you can go in a county courthouse now, go to the various departments, stick your head in. You'll see who are in there. And they're Caucasians. And I guess, in a nutshell, yes, it has made some progress, rosy-dosy, I don't think so.

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