By E.R. Shipp, Special to the AFRO

Part 1 of 2

Perhaps, as with the assessment of Martin Luther King Jr., an appreciation of the significance of the riot – or civil disturbance – of 1968 grows with time. It was certainly not the centerpiece of news coverage in the AFRO, which back then produced multiple editions that were distributed in Washington, Richmond, Philadelphia and other cities.

With more recent anniversaries, including the 40th in 2008, the AFRO has devoted more space to the lasting impact the 1968 riot had on the city and its people. But back during what the now-defunct Baltimore News-American decried as the city’s “60 hours of shame” in April 1968, the AFRO seemed a bit out of step in keeping up with the story and in connecting with the people caught up in the mayhem.

Over 700 people were injured and almost 6,000 arrested during the Baltimore Riot of ’68. (Baltimore Police Department)

Understandably, everyone was in shock about the death of Dr. King on Apr. 4. The story of his assassination, the funeral, the law enforcement search for a killer and attempts to quantify what he had meant and what America had lost dominated the news for weeks. In addition, as a twice a week newspaper, the AFRO could not really compete with the two major dailies – the News-American and the Baltimore Sun – as well as television and radio.

But there was another factor that affected the AFRO’s performance: A not-too-subtle classism evident in descriptions of rioters as “ghetto dwellers.” Clearly, they did not represent the race as well as did the social and civic leaders, the church folks, the college crowd, the athletes and the entertainers who were regularly chronicled in the pages of the AFRO. An April 9 article noted: “As of press time Monday, the affect of appeals for peace and order from…numerous colored public officials and community leaders was questionable.” It added: “One obvious reason for the lack of impact the appeals had on the rioters is due to the fact that they do not relate to those persons sounding the pleas.” They were “vandals” responsible for ’the reign of terror.”

Forty years later, Clarence Mitchell 3d, who had been a state senator in 1968, told the AFRO: “Once the mob mentality takes hold – there were people out there participating in the riots who weren’t even grieving for King. They were using the riots as a means to get a refrigerator, or get a fan and it spoke to the poverty that was endemic in this city and how much we still needed to do.”

That kind of empathy, apparent in later years, was absent in the AFRO’s 1968 coverage.

King’s death took place as the April 6 paper was being “put to bed,” as they say in newspaper parlance. That meant the news pages had to be hurriedly rewritten, edited and readied for the printing press. Some early editions carried a front page headline, “Riots Part of Ugly Atmosphere,” but that was about unrest at Bowie State College, where students had been protesting untenable conditions and Gov. Spiro T. Agnew had responded by having 293 of them jailed. The dominant photo on page 1 had been of National Guardsmen with bayonets pointed at striking sanitation workers in Memphis; a story reported that Dr. King was expected to return to that city to support the workers. But all that had to be redone when word came of King’s death. In the April 13 paper, the “If You Ask Me” columnist, Bettye M. Moss, shared some behind the scenes insight into how the staff had rallied. “There followed work all night here at the AFRO. Editors, reporters, photographers, who heard the [news], rushed to help get it set, to pull out photos…to restructure the Washington and Baltimore editions already in the composing room.”

Next week: How the AFRO covered the aftermath of the ’68 Riot.