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Baltimore and America's Civil Rights Story

How does civil rights history help us think about Baltimore? Above all, it should frame recent events in the city in an unfolding, ongoing and still incomplete narrative of struggle.
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Group of vacant houses in Baltimore, Maryland. Poverty, urban decay, blight, crime, renewal.
Group of vacant houses in Baltimore, Maryland. Poverty, urban decay, blight, crime, renewal.

Americans generally tell their civil rights history along the following lines: At one time, white southerners were racist, very racist. They created laws to keep blacks in separate and inferior schools, kept them poor by relegating them to the lowest paying jobs, denied them the right to vote, and humiliated them with an array of petty and demeaning social customs. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., southern African Americans non-violently protested this treatment, the injustice of which seemed clear and obvious enough to those outside the South. After a few ugly incidents, Congress ultimately passed two landmark pieces of legislation -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two laws removed the obstacles in the way of black equality, and African Americans now enjoy the same opportunities as everyone else.

This neatly celebratory narrative dominates American understandings of our racial past; it recently found expression yet again in the popular movie Selma. Yet it is myth, not history. It finds its purchase in a grossly truncated and distorted depiction of America's "race problem," as well as in an overly optimistic assessment of its "solutions." On a practical level, it colors the lenses through which we look at contemporary race disparities, prompting us to ask questions that bear little relationship to the realities that afflict us. For if the quest for racial equality accomplished its goals in 1964 and 1965, what right have black Americans to complain? If African Americans enjoy an equal footing and equal opportunity with their fellow citizens, who, other than they themselves, bears responsibility for their failures and their sufferings? In recent days, commentators and ordinary Americans have been stuck in just these kinds of questions.

Civil rights history -- a more multi-dimensional endeavor than the mythologizing offered above -- offers a better framework for understanding Baltimore's troubles. Civil rights history trains its lens on the North as well as the South, including events and circumstances in America's cities, swollen in the mid-20th century by the Great Migration of black southerners into the urban Upper South, North and West. Black migrants taking this journey hoped to find expanded opportunities, but often encountered instead new forms of economic marginalization, artificially restricted housing opportunities, and deeply entrenched school segregation.

Much of this racial marginalization took shape without the sanction of the law and even in spite of statutes on the books designed to stop such practices. Ohio, for example, could tout decades-old civil rights legislation that forbade discrimination in public accommodations. Yet, Buckeye-state businesses nonetheless routinely denied service to blacks in restaurants, segregated them in theaters and served them only on designated days in hospitals and amusement parks. Ironically during the late 1950s and 60s, southern blacks secured the promise of the Brown v Board of Education decision by gaining entry into formerly all-white schools, while school segregation in northern urban areas increased. Americans could understand and identify the injustice in laws requiring separate schools and different treatment for whites and blacks. But they had more difficulty grasping how frequently racial marginalization operated without a legal scaffold, taking its most opaque, insidious, and intractable forms in the residential, economic and educational systems that dominated in the North.

At the time, Baltimore displayed these and other troubling characteristics. Between 1963 and 1965, a committee of religious leaders visited many of the country's most distressed urban areas. In Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland, Chicago and Baltimore, this group documented deep structural racial disparities. The report from Baltimore made the following observations: "Corruption in law enforcement is great . . . police brutality is common." The report went on to describe how this information, well-known by African Americans, often failed to reach the wider public: "stories are written by reporters but are changed or killed by the editors or owners of the newspapers." As to the attitude of local whites, the report explained that most remained "opposed to any kind of action. All can give you reasons why something should not be done at this time."

Though in myth we remember a non-violent struggle, civil rights history reveals that violence always danced around the movement's fringe. Leaders struggled to stay the path of peace, but undisciplined youth often sabotaged movement aims by breaking ranks and venting their frustration. Indeed, during King's final campaign in Memphis, unruly elements threw rocks, broke store windows, and looted. Careful observers understood and distinguished between the valid goals black Americans sought and the violence that they could not control, but critics nonetheless used these sensational outbursts to cast doubts over the entire civil rights endeavor. Many conservative whites regarded King as a trouble-maker, agitator, and rabble-rouser.

In civil rights history, the great legislative achievements of 1964 and 1965 take their rightful place, not as unqualified triumphal endpoints, but as partial solutions to some of the factors in a larger problem. The deep structural issues of race-based urban poverty, residential confinement, and unequal schooling remained largely untouched. Thus, some African Americans benefited stupendously from these laws, but many saw no gains at all. Many whites, having never grasped the structural dimensions of America's race problems, also failed to understand the inadequacy of this legislation. They scratched their heads when, in 1968 alone, major rioting broke out in 110 American cities. Had not the country laid the axe to the root of injustice? Thus began the great civil rights counter myth: America had acted decisively to guarantee equal rights, so surely these problems all ensued from the weakness and character flaws of blacks themselves.

In civil rights history, the problems of race-based urban poverty, residential segregation, and inferior schooling, unaddressed and unsolved by the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, worsened in subsequent decades with the decline and departure of major manufacturing from these areas. And the addition of yet another new and profoundly discriminatory institution -- the War on Drugs -- piled the obstacles faced by African Americans to new heights. Even though whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rates (studies show slightly higher use for whites in certain demographics), the mis-policing of black communities in recent decades has disproportionately penalized black men, saddling them with police records, prison sentences, and legal fees that exact a debilitating toll.

How does civil rights history help us think about Baltimore? Above all, it should frame recent events in the city in an unfolding, ongoing and still incomplete narrative of struggle. When looking at Baltimore, we should cast off the mythological lens of a post-racial America where blacks have equal opportunities. Without those glasses, we might achieve the same clear-sighted moral vision about the injustice of disparate treatment under the law -- and its multiplying effects -- that we exercise retrospectively regarding the historic denial of voting rights. We might ask hard questions about the causes and consequences of economic inequality. We might reject school segregation, whether achieved by white flight or any other means. Above all, we might recognize that in urban America, conditions remain that would suck the life out of the most hearty and robust of any race.