LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In the hours after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, cities across the nation were engulfed in riots. But Baltimore was eerily calm - that is, until the weekend 50 years ago today, when hundreds of homes and businesses were torched. Six people died, and some 5,000 National Guardsmen were deployed to restore order to Baltimore. As NPR's Brakkton Booker reports, the riots laid bare the tensions in a city that resurfaced again in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray. And just a warning - this story contains a racial slur.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: In 1968, Tommy D'Alesandro was just a few months into his term as mayor. Some 5,000 National Guardsmen had been deployed to restore order to the city, and he asked residents for their help.
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THOMAS D'ALESANDRO JR.: I want to appeal to all the people of the city of Baltimore to remain calm, to be peaceful.
BOOKER: That audio is courtesy of WJZ-TV. For many black residents of Baltimore, mourning had given way to anger. Robert Birt was 15 and lived here in the Latrobe Homes housing projects in East Baltimore.
ROBERT BIRT: It was warm. There was, of course, the tension in the city.
BOOKER: Birt calls this the ghetto. He takes me to the corner of Eagar and Asquith Streets.
BIRT: Right at that corner, where you see the lot, was a store owned by a middle-aged Jewish couple.
BOOKER: Birt, who now teaches philosophy at Bowie State University, says he remembers seeing a crowd of 15 or 20 people making their way towards the corner shop. Like him, they were young and black.
BIRT: When they got in front of the store, that's when I heard some people shouting, they killed King. These white crackers - they killed King. These white so-and-so - they killed King. They're going to pay for it. We're going to burn them out.
BOOKER: He says someone threw a Molotov cocktail, and that corner store burst into flames. Hundreds of stores - dry cleaners, appliance shops, grocery stores - were destroyed throughout the city, most owned by white folks no longer living in the majority-black neighborhoods where their businesses were located. Robert Embry was a 30-year-old City Council member. He represented Northeast Baltimore, which was predominantly white at the time.
ROBERT EMBRY: A number of people that I knew had guns that they got out of the closet and had ready in white neighborhoods because they feared the African-American community would come into their neighborhood and do some kind of violence, and they would have to defend themselves.
BOOKER: Embry is now president of the Abell Foundation, which helps fight poverty in Baltimore.
EMBRY: The city then, as now, was racially divided.
BOOKER: 1968 was not the last time disenfranchised black youth would set the city on fire. Here's 22-year-old Mo Jackson speaking on Morning Edition in 2015, where he's describing the scene at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore.
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MO JACKSON: Police came and blocked off everything. If you're an animal that's blocked off - you feeling me? - they're going to want a way to get out. So people start moving. Police start getting more aggressive. Before anything happens, they start up with smoke screens and all that and made everything violent.
BOOKER: Lots of comparisons have been made between the riots in 1968 and those in 2015. Both took place after days of peaceful protests following the death of a black man. In 1968, it was King. In 2015, it was 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after suffering a severe spinal injury while in police custody. Here's then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
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STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: We are deploying every resource possible to gain control of the situation and to ensure peace moving forward.
BOOKER: Like in '68, hundreds were arrested. And the National Guard was sent in. University of Baltimore Professor Elizabeth Nix co-edited the book "Baltimore '68: Riots And Rebirth In An American City." She says decades of systemic discrimination laid the groundwork for both riots - city-instituted segregation, redlining that prevented many blacks from getting ahead and then white flight.
ELIZABETH NIX: So there are these scars through certain neighborhoods. And people feel like their neighborhoods have been abandoned - abandoned by the federal government, abandoned by the local government, abandoned by wealthier neighbors who have moved out.
BOOKER: Nix says King was scheduled to visit Baltimore as he expanded his fight against segregation to address economic disparities for all races. But he was diverted to Memphis, where he was assassinated. Commemorations of Martin Luther King will continue in Baltimore through April. This week, young activists are sitting down with veterans of the civil rights movement to talk about how to fulfill King's dream. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Baltimore.
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