Now or Never Baltimore (Part 2)
It is tempting to think that the chance for Baltimore’s salvation, and the chance to avoid what happened last April, came and went in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It is a temptation at least for those inclined to think that the country as a whole could have be set on a radically new path with the convergence — rather than the assassination — of a Malcolm returned from his pilgrimage shorn of the absurdities of The Nation’s ideology, a Martin turning against war and towards economic inequality, and a Bobby transformed after his brother’s death into a white man capable of becoming a civil rights president. But it is easy to romanticize the past. Looking back with more cynical eyes, it is hard to imagine either Baltimore or the country undergoing the kind of transformation during the 1960s that would have satisfied all of the desires stirred by The Movement at the time, or that satisfies our imagination, today, of what was actually possible fifty years ago.
While not at the doorstep of a radical liberation from our racial past, Baltimore in the 1960s was presented with an opportunity that was more mundane, and for that very reason perhaps more practically important. In a city undergoing a demographic shift towards blackness, and with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board, it was an opportunity delivered by a dual emergence — of a black political class finally coming into its own as a force to be reckoned with, and of two towering figures who became mayor, one after the other, because they accommodated the interests of black people not just as a matter of pragmatism, but also their own racial liberalism. It was a brief moment, culminating in 1967, when white people and black people in Baltimore had the chance to begin in earnest the slow and difficult work of running the government, and the city, together, and through that, to socialize their differences through public institutions, and to negotiate politically for the final recognition of the unrecognized civil rights of black people.
This opportunity was lost. It was not burned down by the riots of that year so much as it was destroyed by the fear, defensiveness, and resentment that would follow them. And it was buried by the desire to avoid the very issue of racial difference and racial injustice that 60s activism had put on the table — a desire that would pave the way for the man who would become mayor in 1971.
The 1960s thus concluded neither with the radical new path dreamed of during the era, nor the more mundane opportunity the era made possible, but instead with a doubling-down on the pre-civil rights era status quo. The decade was merely transitional rather than transformational, a transition between two different modes of managing black political activity, away from the previous fifty years of unvarnished exclusion and dispossession, and towards the partial participation of black people in the city’s public life and its places of power. It was as if a steam valve was added to the system to adjust for and release the pressures of the Civil Rights Movement, waning by the end of the decade, in order to prevent those pressures from leading to the change the Movement itself sought to realize.
In Baltimore it wasn’t just demographics and civil rights that made black people politically relevant by 1950 after being ignored (and worse) in the decades prior. Baltimore at that time was a place of actual competition for black votes between Democrats — dominant in Maryland even then — and a functional Republican party. The viability of the party of Lincoln in fact hinged on the black vote in Maryland, and long before black people were Democrats, they were Republicans.
In addition to two political parties, there were legitimate political bosses, men who never held office and yet held the strings, who ran machines that delivered people to elected office with money and patronage. One boss in particular was looking to hold onto power as black people took over one Council District, and then another. Jack Pollack was Baltimore’s key power broker until the 1960s when black voters came to dominate his base in the Fourth District and made black candidates — whom he refused to field for office until he had no choice — politically viable. Long before that, starting in the 1930s, Pollack delivered Jews from the Fourth and Fifth Districts to political office, and thus to a political prominence that would finally match their economic influence. Over time exclusion of the Negro became a keystone of Pollack’s Trenton Democratic Club, and as the black population began to grow in the Fourth, that strategy of exclusion cemented the allegiance of lower-class Jews who felt threatened by the influx. Pollack would suppress black voter turnout for as long as he could.
It was when its black population had swelled, and it was established as the heart of Black Baltimore, with Pennsylvania Avenue as its spiritual center, that a black lawyer named Harry Cole came out of the Fourth District to beat Pollack’s candidate for state senator in 1954. Cole, the first ever African American member of the Maryland Senate, was propelled by new machine led by new power-brokers, Irv Kovens (a Jewish furniture dealer, among other things) and “Little” Willie Adams (a black numbers-runner-turned-entrepreneur, a fixer and unofficial banker to the black community). This duo would field civil rights-friendly candidates to take advantage of an increasingly black electorate that extended from the Fourth into the heavily Jewish Fifth.
With the support of Kovens and Adams, Councilmanic redistricting in 1966 consolidated black political power within the Fourth and Fifth Districts, all but guaranteeing black representation on the City Council from them, and assuring the formal participation of blacks in city politics for the first time. Jack Pollack lost his fight for an alternative redistricting plan that would have diluted the black vote by spreading it across those two districts and one more, the Second, which included the heart of the east side.
In a way, Pollack’s failure to get what he wanted on redistricting, leading to a high concentration of black votes in the Fourth but far fewer in the Second, formalized a difference between eastside and westside politics that, to a degree, persists to this day. The Fourth could, and did, support black candidates with a more progressive and indeed militant vision because they had no need to appeal to white voters; the Second district meanwhile was not so concentrated with black votes and required successful black candidates to make deals with white liberals, who themselves were fending off more conservative ethnic whites and white political clubs. The Second was thus characterized by moderation, much more so than the Fourth. (The Second, as opposed to the Fourth, was also poorer, and the history books do not point to an east side equivalent to Willie Adams who would have been able to bankroll a political effort.) The City’s first black mayor came out of the Second in fact, thanks to his ability to compromise with and support Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Thanks to his loyalty Clarence “Du” Burns rose to City Council President under Schaefer’s reign and from there inherited the mayor’s seat when he was elected Governor in 1986.
Into this context came Republican Theodore McKeldin, a giant of Maryland politics who would win the election for mayor in 1963 on the same civil rights platform he lost with in 1959. He had already served as governor twice, winning in 1954 with 70% of the black vote on a platform supportive of Brown v. Board. But a track record of racial liberalism could not deliver Baltimore’s City Hall to a Republican without a larger and more mobilized black vote. He had that in 1963, but McKeldin’s narrow victory required not only a well-organized black vote but disarray among competing machine bosses destabilized by the shifting tides and demographics of the civil rights era. McKeldin was able to carry the black vote in the Fourth, Fifth and Second districts, and liberal whites across the city. Meanwhile ethnic whites not particularly friendly to civil rights were neutralized by splintered political clubs and machine pols in two important districts — Jack Pollack’s Fifth and William Curran’s Third.
McKeldin’s narrow victory in ’63 pulled many black voters into the electoral process, and forced him to solidify a fragile coalition by balancing the demands of black leaders who were, for the first time, in a position to make those demands on City Hall, and the interest of whites who were taken aback by the wave of change happening in their city and country. McKeldin began to split municipal jobs equally between blacks and whites. He assented to the appointment of future-congressman Parren Mitchell as head of the Community Action Agency, a powerful position that would funnel federal dollars to poor black neighborhoods. But McKeldin also allowed a conservative white Councilman to head the committee that oversaw Mitchell’s work. McKeldin secured passage of the city’s Equal Accommodations Act in 1964 outlawing discrimination in public facilities, but agreed to drop housing from its scope as a favor to white City Council members terrified by the prospect of black neighbors.
The very fact that McKeldin had to make compromises of black interests was an indication of all that had changed. The dealmaking and machine politics of the early sixties would legitimize, for the first time, black political participation in city government.
And when Tommy D’Alesandro, III succeeded McKeldin in 1967 it should have been the beginning of a political dynasty —and a multiracial one at that. D’Alesandro (“Young Tommy”) not only proved his bona fides as a racial liberal as Council President while McKeldin was mayor, but also inherited the good will of Baltimore’s white ethnic population as the son of a New Deal champion of the working class, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. (“Old Tommy”). The father was a U.S. Congressman during Baltimore’s WWII boom years from a district home to so many working class whites — the Italians, the Germans, the Poles, the Czechs. He was then a legendary mayor from 1947–1959. Young Tommy inherited his father’s New Deal legacy and coalition, but did so as an integrationist who supported racially mixed schools.
D’Alesandro’s combination of white and black votes transformed the fragile coalition that McKeldin built just four years earlier into an overwhelming wave of support that led to victory with 80% of the vote. In turn D’Alesandro made George Russel the first black City Solicitor, and as such he was the first black member of the Board of Estimates. He appointed the first black commissioners of the Fire Board, Parks, and the zoning board, and he appointed James Griffin, head of the Baltimore chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality, to the school board. He would soon also appoint to the school board Larry Gibson, who had already run successful political campaigns for black candidates and would do so much later for Kurt Schmoke.
At his December inauguration he promised “to root out every cause or vestige of discrimination,” and the first four months of D’Alesandro’s tenure as mayor held the promise of a truly multi-racial government. Not a perfect government — certainly not by today’s standards — but one where black civil rights and black social inclusion would become a structured part of political discourse and decision-making, necessary topics that would drive policy in a changing city that might someday address its original sin.
But four months after Young Tommy D’Alesandro became mayor Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down. A week of rioting followed, and it left behind abiding doubts about whether the city would, or could, follow through with the integrationist values the new mayor espoused and that animated the coalition with which he had expected to govern.
The chaos would stun liberal whites who assumed that the riots that happened elsewhere, in ’64 and ’67, just couldn’t be repeated in Baltimore. They had to admit, as D’Alesandro himself did, that things were in fact much worse for black people in the city than they had realized. The riots would also work to confirm the racist suspicions of other whites who felt their stereotypes were vindicated by the looting and arson they saw on television. And it would shock many middle class blacks who could not relate to or accept the violence they saw from young black people on the streets, and who would soon join middle class whites in moving out of the city to the surrounding counties.
But the riots would also embolden more militant black leaders to increase their demands for recognition of black civil rights. Indeed, in June of ’68, just months after King’s assassination in April, Parren Mitchell resigned his post as head of the Community Action Agency in protest, and took many of its commission members with him, because of what he felt was sabotage of the agency’s efforts to mobilize and empower blacks in Baltimore. Weeks later Mitchell would mount a run for Congress in ’68 against a long-time Jewish incumbent with a campaign theme that sought to capitalize on post-riot black radicalization — “Our Time Is Now.”
Mitchell would launch his ’68 campaign as a member of the Goon Squad, a group of black ministers, lawyers, academics and politicians who had been around since efforts to desegregate the Northwood Theater and the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in 1963, and who together adopted, as a badge of honor, a name that was meant to be a pejorative. Parren Mitchell, Vernon Dobson, Harold Dobson, Marion Bascom, Chester Wickwire, Wendell H. Phillips, Homer Favor, and Lalit H. Gadhia. Joseph Howard was another member, a well-respected attorney with the State’s Attorney’s Office who was fired for writing a study of the office’s disparate treatment of rape cases, one that showed how penalties were longer when the victim was white and the assailant black, and shorter when the victim was black and the assailant white. In 1968, the Goon Squad would sponsor not only Mitchell’s run for Congress, but also Howard’s run to become the first black Circuit Court judge in the city.
The Goon Squad, and the Mitchell and Howard campaigns, were a threat to black politicians whose approach was more moderate, particularly on the eastside where, as discussed, demographics and the 1966 redistricting made moderation a political necessity. Robert Douglass had won a Council seat in 1967 in the enlarged Second District, and would go on to be a dominant figure on the eastside as a black politician who never sought to be identified as “a black candidate.” Douglass had won his first race thanks to an alliance with the Mount Royal Democratic Club, founded by City Councilman Tom Ward, a white liberal who had supported for Council both Douglass and Walter Orlinsky, another white liberal who would go on to found his own democratic club. In 1970, Douglass and Du Burns organized the Eastside Democratic Organization (EDO) to compete against the Polish-dominated Bohemian Club that prevented blacks from getting on the ballot, and they forged a alliance with Orlinsky’s club in 1971 to win Douglass’ re-election and Burns’ election to the Council. Even as blacks on the westside were outgrowing — literally — the alliance with Jews upon which Willie Adams and his Metro Democratic Club initially relied, Douglass and Burns on the eastside needed an alliance with white pols to be viable. The latter could not possibly succeed with a campaign theme such as the one Mitchell ran with in ‘68.
The results of the Goon Squad-sponsored campaigns in ’68 tended to validate the eastside’s moderate approach. Mitchell would lose his “Our Time Is Now” sloganed race for Congress, and though Judge Howard won, he did so with a campaign that publicly downplayed his black candidacy. He also benefited from a quirk of judicial races that Mitchell could not, Howard being able to appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballot lines. He actually lost the Democratic nomination, but nabbed the Republican nomination because so many blacks were still registered party members.
Howard’s fragile victory in 1968 would be followed in 1970 by two more wins that were historic, but just as fragile. One victory came out of Parren Mitchell’s second run to become Maryland’s first black Congressmember, this time with a consensus message not a militant one, and by only 38 votes on a ballot where the incumbent, named Friedel, found himself competing against an unknown candidate who happened to be named Friedler. The other victory made Milton Allen the city’s first black State’s Attorney. Allen wasn’t a product of the Goon Squad at all, although he had worked with Joe Howard and helped him with his study of racial disparities in the handling of rape cases by prosecutor’s office. He was a moderate, and a consensus candidate with endorsements from the EDO and Willie Adams’ Metro Democrats, as well as Adams’ main competition in the Fourth, Verda Welcome’s Fourth District Democratic Organization. Most important, Allen benefited from a white vote split across five white challengers.
1970 was a breakthrough year for black politics in Baltimore because of the Mitchell and Allen wins, but these were not a sign of enduring strength, or of a newfound unity among competing factions of moderates and militants, as would become clear in the 1971 race for mayor that was D’Alesandro’s to lose until he made the shocking decision to leave politics forever. The underlying disunity of black politics was matched by ongoing tumult city-wide in the wake of the ’68 riots. Mayor D’Alesandro had been permanently altered by the riots, and his integrationist coalition permanently undermined. He was plagued by his inability to satisfy the strident and entirely justified demands of black leaders and to balance those demands with the concerns of whites — in particular, on the schools issue, and school desegregation.
It was D’Alesandro’s unexpected bowing out that opened the door for William Donald Schaefer to step into the breach, and by so doing, to secure his inheritance. Because he was a councilmember under McKeldin and then Council President under D’Alesandro, he was an unintended beneficiary of their bona fide racial liberalism, casting votes in favor of their agenda all the while having no integrationist or civil rights agenda of his own. This would help insure his success in ’71, premised as it was not just on the white votes that came easily to him but on the fact that black voters did not view him as an overt threat to their interests. Had Schaefer put forward the kind of racist appeals that segregationist Democrats used to great effect to attract Schaefer’s own white base — such as George Mahoney in his 1966 run for Maryland governor, or Alabama Governor George Wallace’s run for president in 1968 — he might have inspired a unified black response and high black turnout at the polls. Not only would that have been bad strategy, Schaefer’s style was to do the opposite of drawing any attention to race.
Schaefer’s inheritance was the coalition built through the hard work of McKeldin and D’Alesandro. But it was a coalition that by 1971 was being drained of the animating force of the civil rights era, and where blacks were split between moderate and militant politics. Schaefer was the perfect man for a city scarred by April ’68, where many wanted to forget the riots and bring the civil rights era to a close. With help from his alliance with black moderates on the eastside and the Willie Adams machine on the westside, Schaefer would do just this, while D’Alesandro — a symbol of the promise that flickered before the riots, of white people and black people working out their differences in a shared government — would fade into the distance. The closure brought by Schaefer was so complete that a decade after the historic wins of 1970, not a single city-wide political office would be held by a black person.
It wasn’t just a coalition that Schaefer inherited, but an infrastructure of business elite support, set up first by McKeldin, that would provide the template for mayoral success for decades to come, as well as an agenda of urban renewal and downtown renaissance pushed forward by both McKeldin and D’Alesandro, not to mention the bureaucracy they set up to carry it out. They built the machine, Schaefer had to get in and drive it: a highly centralized economic development machine created by McKeldin; a Department of Housing and Community Development created by D’Alesandro to control the placement of housing and urban renewal; and McKeldin’s vision for a transformed inner harbor, articulated a decade before Schaefer took office, of a gleaming alternative to smelly docks in decline at the footstep of downtown. As D’Alesandro would later say, Schaefer was in no position to deviate from the agenda he and McKeldin created. And he had little reason to do so.
After his election in 1971, William Donald Schaefer was able to perfect the McKeldin/D’Alesandro coalition and create a dominant political consensus. But he could only do this after ridding himself of the schools problem, the problem of desegregation, and an integrationist school superintendent who was another, more problematic inheritance from D’Alesandro for the new mayor who was looking to leave race behind.
Part 3, the next installment of this series, is here.