This week was not the first time Rochester anxiously watched Baltimore engulfed in riots. In April 1968—four years after our own turmoil—the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked a wave of protests and unrest, especially so in Baltimore.
Spinning my way through the microfilm at the Rundell Library—turning the page from an otherwise uneventful April 3rd to the dreadful next morning in Memphis—I entered a world unhinged, a numbing parade of vigils, burning cars, mourners and riot police.
On April 8th, the Democrat and Chronicle editors weighed in on the violence sweeping the nation, “Riots Hit Innocent the Hardest.” In many ways, the editorial was what I expected, (including the language of its times: “Negro,” “get whitey” and “gun talk”).
Giving the immediacy of events, the opinion focuses on the (televised) damage done to innocents, “good, decent, stable families” juxtaposed with “heartless, thrill-seeking looters.” The NAACP’s call for non-violence is endorsed, cast implicitly against the militancy of Black Power. Deeper grievances are mentioned but not fully elaborated (given the moment, a topic for another day.)
What struck me—in this opinion piece, letters to the editor, and general news coverage during that week following the assassination—was the reticence to discuss comparisons between Baltimore April 1968 and Rochester July 1964. Police Chief William Lombard—who played such a prominent role in 1964—wrote a letter praising the peaceful response of Rochesterians in which the events of that long, hot summer were noticeably absent.
In 1968 Rochester had not yet come to terms with both the trauma inflicted and the injustices revealed by 1964. Nor have we rightfully forgotten still. The April 28th Democrat and Chronicle, “Work to ensure Baltimore riots don’t happen here,” describes how social media discussions of the current situation in Baltimore consistently hearken back to 1964.
I might have taken less notice of the fairly predictable 1968 editorial written by a white editorial board had I not read Reverend Marvin McMickle’s profound and eloquent essay “Riots leave lasting scars upon a community” (April 28th).
McMickle, an African-American man who has been there, explains how he lived through two riots in 1968 in Chicago (presumably King in April and the Democrat Convention in August) and how his ministry has taken him to cities “where the scars of urban riots can still be seen; Newark, New Jersey, Cleveland and now Rochester.” Using King’s phrase, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” McMickle helps us understand the frustration of black Baltimorians who have complained about excessive force by its police department for years.
But, more so, McMickle poignantly describes the tragic devastation inflicted in Baltimore: a CVS burned and looted that sold vital prescription drugs, destroyed liquor stores whose owners lived just above their shops, a ruined senior center that served the impoverished. As he says, “It is the rioters’ own communities that bear these scars.”
Unfortunately, in 2015 what was inescapable in 1964 and 1968 all too often still holds: “Riots Hit Innocent the Hardest.”
also see (and print version below) democratandchronicle.guest-column/2015/05/02/going-back-time-reveals-familiar-scenes-sentiments/