The city's grim cycle of tragedy
A young black man died after an altercation with police in West Baltimore, and tensions were running high.
Significant discrepancies existed between the official police narrative and the recollections of witnesses. Police said the man had a knife and had resisted arrest. Civil rights advocates alleged police brutality.
As the outcry grew, federal, state and city officials turned their gaze to largely black West Baltimore as a potential powder keg. Some promised emergency efforts to improve health and economic conditions, raze dilapidated vacant homes and repair police-community relations.
The mayor decried the “squalid physical and social conditions” as “among the most atrocious” in the city. “The pressures building up within the area are rapidly reaching an intensity capable of creating a major explosion,” the mayor said.
The year was 1964.
A half-century before the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimoreans were rattled by the death of another black man in his 20s at the hands of police. Vernon Leopold was sitting on his mother's porch when a police officer questioned him. Police said Leopold pulled a knife and stabbed the officer, who pulled a gun and shot him to death. Witnesses said the officer had been drinking and provoked the altercation.
For longtime civil rights activists and scholars, it is this history that rushed to mind after Gray's death one year ago. They lament that more has not been done to make good on the promises of the past, or to dismantle the remnants of forced segregation that perpetuate poverty and continue to shape the divide between residents and police in Baltimore's black neighborhoods.
“We've just come around a circle. We're back to the same place we were in '64,” said Helena Hicks, 81, who has been on the front lines of local civil rights activism for most of her life. “The relationships are no better. The vision and the planning for the future is no better. There are no examples of lasting progress.
“It's just like putting a Band-Aid on a cut that needs to be sutured. That's exactly what it is. They come up with a bigger box of Band-Aids, bigger Band-Aids, better-stick Band-Aids, and then they take the Band-Aid off and the cut is still there.”
Decades before, in 1943, a Maryland “Commission on Problems Affecting the Negro Population” called for improvements in police-community relations, education, health, employment and housing after 2,000 African-Americans marched on Annapolis to protest the fatal police shooting of a young black Army private in the back.
Leopold's was the second death at the hands of police that summer to be denounced as police brutality by prominent black leaders, including lawmaker Clarence M. Mitchell III, the son of civil rights pioneer Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.
Three years later, a federal commission would link concerns about police brutality and deep-seated issues of poverty and segregation to unrest in other cities, and a year after that, rioting would erupt in Baltimore following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, a scholar whose advice was solicited for the 1967 federal report, recalled a string of previous reports on unrest dating back to the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which followed the drowning of a black teenager after he was stoned by a group of white youths for breaching unofficial segregation laws at Chicago's beaches.
“It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland,” Clark said at the time, “with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
The past century's rhetoric surrounding race relations would sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in Baltimore in the past year, where a beleaguered mayor decided not to run for re-election and a police commissioner was ousted, where political and civic leaders continue to discuss solutions to social ills. Scholars say the cyclical thinking is a function of the intractability of the problems and the failure to address root causes in a sustained way.
“You hear those echoes and you hear people trying similar tactics to publicize what they see as injustices, and people in power not really knowing how to deal with that,” said Elizabeth Nix, a University of Baltimore associate professor who has studied past unrest in the city. “Having people see the patterns, that's what history is all about. If we don't like this pattern, how do we make it stop?”
Two summer deaths
Civil rights activist Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, a teenager at the time, said he remembers the summer of 1964 being hot and charged.
In late June, a 44-year-old black man named Louis C. Petty died of head injuries he suffered in a scuffle with police after officers responded to a minor traffic accident.
Police said Petty was arrested after becoming “abusive, loud and profane” and striking white patrolman Glen Russell in the face and chest. In a police report, Russell said he hit
Mitchell, then in the House of Delegates, said he had testimony from witnesses who swore
A grand jury ultimately cleared Russell and the other officers.
Less than a month after Petty's death, 28-year-old Leopold was killed. Mitchell, state NAACP President Lillie May Carroll Jackson and others talked to witnesses who said they believed the white officer, William Ray, had been drinking in Fred's Bar at North Parrish and West Saratoga streets before wildly confronting Leopold in the 300 block of N. Parrish St.
The police report at the time said Ray tried to move a crowd out of the street, then approached Leopold to ask if he lived there. Police said Leopold cursed the officer and then kicked him in the stomach. The two wrestled on the ground, and Leopold pulled a knife and stabbed Ray in the hand, the report said.
“With great effort,” according to the report, the officer then raised his gun and shot Leopold.
The NAACP, in a telegram sent to Gov. J. Millard Tawes, challenged the police narrative, saying Leopold was trying to cross the street after being harassed by Ray when the officer “with flushed face and, acting as if he were crazy, started beating Mr. Leopold with his stick.” Leopold tried to ward off the blows until another man ran up and took the stick from the officer, the telegram said, at which time Ray took out his gun and shot Leopold.
The NAACP called for a “blue-ribbon commission to investigate unwarranted police killings and brutality in Baltimore.” Hicks recalled that the historic 1963 March on Washington was “still on many people's minds,” bolstering their confidence in demanding the officer be held accountable.
An unusual, 17-hour public hearing was called to consider whether the officer should face homicide charges. A number of witnesses testified that Ray appeared drunk, and the woman sitting next to Leopold on his mother's porch said she could smell liquor on his breath. But others disputed that, including officers who responded to the scene and medical personnel who treated Ray after the incident.
In the end, a judge dismissed the case, finding Ray was seriously injured before resorting to his pistol to stop the fight with Leopold. The FBI launched a federal investigation but did not find any wrongdoing, and Ray returned to work without being disciplined.
“Those were monumental cases. The NAACP got real energized,” said Cheatham, now 65.
As Cheatham rose through the ranks of the local NAACP, he said the organization held up the Leopold case as an example of efforts to undermine NAACP leaders. The officer's defense attorney called the witnesses “murderers, cutthroats, thieves … and now, deliberate, inspired, manufactured perjurers.”
“It was clear that the witnesses were put in the defensive posture. The witnesses got attacked,” Cheatham said. “There were deliberate efforts to discredit the entire ‘Negro' community.”
Amid the controversy, Mayor Theodore McKeldin toured the neighborhood where Leopold was shot with the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance and promised improvements. Maryland Attorney General Thomas Finan promised to bring police officials and black leaders together to discuss the claims of police brutality in the community.
“We hope this may be the foundation for a better understanding in the future,” Finan said.
A history of reports
That summer was neither the first nor the last time that Baltimore became embroiled in controversy over police-involved deaths.
Twenty years earlier, in 1942, Army Pvt. Thomas E. Broadus headed to West Baltimore, a bustling area and a magnet for famous jazz artists of the time. When he and other soldiers, along with two black women, tried to hail a ride from an unlicensed cab, a police officer intervened and insisted they wait for a licensed one.
Broadus “resented the interference” and “used abusive and insulting language” toward the officer, according to the report from the governor's commission. The officer tried to place Broadus under arrest, and a fight ensued before Broadus began to run away.
“While he was running the policeman shot him in the back and killed him,” the 150-page report found.
The officer, Edward R. Bender, who had previously shot and killed another black man, was initially indicted by a grand jury, but the jury rescinded its action a few days later without explanation and the case was dismissed. The state commission called for another grand jury to hear the case, though that never happened and Bender returned to duty.
Against the backdrop of a wartime economy and entrenched segregation policies, the report called for more black police officers on the force, better vocational training for black youth, increased funding for health care in the black community, a concerted effort by public and private sector employers to hire black residents, and vast improvements in housing in the city's “densely populated and segregated areas.”
The same prescriptions have been suggested for decades.
“It is a dreadfully enduring problem — that's what history indicates,” said Larry Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, who has studied the civil rights movement in Baltimore.
Three years after Leopold's death, in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson created his own commission — the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — to investigate the root causes of unrest in black communities across the country.
“The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack — mounted at every level — upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs,” Johnson said at the time. “We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.”
The federal commission's subsequent report outlined the need for improvements that by then had become refrains in Baltimore.
“Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing” denied black residents the benefits of economic progress, the report said. “A growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs” existed in predominantly black neighborhoods, and these conditions helped “to destroy opportunity and enforce failure” among young people.
The report recommended improved processes for handling black residents' grievances against the police, new reviews of police practices, the hiring of more black officers and increased public services in poor black neighborhoods.
It also noted that previous attempts at change had accomplished little, and that “the principal official response” in several cities had been “to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.”
Just as Baltimore split along those historical narrative lines, the city was divided last year following Gray's death from a spinal injury suffered while in police custody. And the subsequent public dialogue has echoed the past.
Many have promised that things will finally change. Mayoral candidates claim they will be the conduit. City boosters point to an increase in charitable giving and revived community groups in Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was arrested. Business leaders promise to hire more local residents.
State lawmakers in Annapolis approved legislation aimed at police reform and at funding the demolition of vacant buildings in Baltimore, and in investment in the city's poor communities.
State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby plans to put on trial six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest and death after declaring last year: “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.'?”
Some saw that as progress, while the officers' supporters accused Mosby of rushing to judgment.
All of the officers — three black and three white — have pleaded not guilty, and the first trial ended in a hung jury in December.
Civil rights advocates say not enough attention is being paid to the most enduring problems — including strained relations between police and black residents and the lack of investment in homeownership and small-business development in black neighborhoods.
They point out that children continue to suffer lead poisoning in their homes and, five decades after a highway was built through West Baltimore, many residents still have few means of getting to job centers.
Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, said the response to Gray's death has failed to address the “whole architecture of how we got here.”
“We're not thinking about making neighborhoods sustainable. We're not thinking about creating neighborhoods of advantage. We're leaving that entire architecture intact because we're not investing in these redlined, disadvantaged black communities. That's what's missing,” Brown said. “So yeah, we'll be back here in another 40, 50, 60 years with another uprising, because it's all still in place.”
Hicks, the activist, said she is tired of “jack-in-the-box solutions.” Only long-term investment will fix the economic and housing problems in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, many of which still lack a grocery store, she said.
Residents have to respect police, and police have to earn that respect by giving it in return, she added. Deliberate civility has been a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, she said, and de-escalation tactics are a core tenet of any well-performing police force.
“Our whole movement was based on self-control. I learned that before I was old enough to vote,” Hicks said.
Gibson, of the University of Maryland, said the narratives may shift because of one modern advancement — the prevalence of cameras. Baltimore police are being equipped with body cameras, and many bystanders often film crime scenes with cellphones.
“In the past there would often be some debate — two stories as to what happened — now often it's sort of visually clear to everyone what happened,” he said. “Hopefully that will lead to some change.”
The fact that Baltimore is now largely represented by black politicians, and has been for several decades, makes the persistence of the problems that much more upsetting, said Cheatham, the activist. “We have had leadership that has not been responsive to the community.”
Young protesters — “far more intelligent and energetic” than he ever was — must harness their energy and focus on legislative agendas because civil rights “doesn't stop and begin with picketing and marching,” he said.
“The struggle continues,” he said. “We must do better. We can do better.”