Kim Peace was a young girl in April 1968, when Baltimore erupted after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I seen people looting and tearing stores up and stuff,” she says. “I really didn’t understand what was going on, but now I know.”
Fifty years later, Peace lives in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested, and where the violence broke out this week after Gray’s funeral. Afterward, she and her granddaughter helped the cleanup effort.
Today, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised justice, even as the wait continues for answers about how the young black man died in police custody. Baltimore police have turned their investigation over to prosecutors, who will decide whether to bring charges in the case.
The turmoil in Baltimore has led to comparisons to the much larger riots of 1968. Some of the same neighborhoods in Baltimore were affected, and in many ways those neighborhoods never really recovered.
The ’68 riots were far more widespread than what happened this week, says Michael Higginbotham, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, but the roots are the same.
“We’re talking about high unemployment, we’re talking about poverty, homelessness, drugs, crime and hopelessness,” he says. “That’s what were the causes in 1968 and they’re the same causes, and the problem is we haven’t dealt with that.”
In fact, Higginbotham says, the 1968 riots only made those conditions worse, because some businesses were reluctant to invest.
Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, who wrote “The Hero’s Fight” about West Baltimore, doesn’t buy that fear keeps businesses away. She blames generations of neglect.
“It is because we have not invested in those neighborhoods,” she says. “Those are folks who really do not have a loud political voice.”
One teacher in Baltimore is trying to give his students more of a voice. At Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School, Baba Olumiji’s 7th and 8th graders spent this morning writing letters to their City Council members. Many of the students live in neighborhoods where stores were looted and burned this week.
“We wanted the children to actually start to learn how to positively advocate for their needs,” Olumiji says.
When school reopened after the unrest, Olumiji used the legacy of the ‘68 riots to teach non-violence.
“We thought it was important for the children to see that neighborhoods don’t always get restored,” he says. “A community has been damaged, perhaps — hopefully not — irreparably.”
Now, the hope is that West Baltimore won’t be forgotten again.
Additional reporting by Mary Wiltenburg.
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