The thing about mob mentality is that there are no rules, no sense of reason. Things that shouldn’t happen, do happen. People who would not behave badly, do. This is the case of the Baltimore Riot of 1968. By the end of it all, Baltimoreans were terrified, horrified and mortified, and a city was left in shambles.
Bibber, as he was known by Baltimore City locals, ran a packaged-good store stocked with liquor, snacks, food, cigarettes, comic books and an odd assortment of things. He’d have no idea that he was about to become part of history in 1968 when racial tensions exploded, and mob rule called the shots.
Locals often came to Bibber, not being able to pay for whatever they were purchasing. The hulk of a man, imposing but kind and approachable, would extend them credit. After all, they were neighbors, and that’s what neighbors do for one another.
Days later, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Baltimore became part of a bevy of riots that ravaged more than 130 cities in the United States. Bibber, a white male, ran his store smack in the middle of an urban, largely Black-populated area. Despite the relationship the business owner had forged with his neighbors, chaos reigned. All bets were off.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. following myriad Civil Rights protests, coupled with ongoing protests about Vietnam, pushed the racial tensions in Baltimore City one tiny step beyond the breaking point.
The neighbors Bibber had exchanged pleasantries with and shouted out: “How about them O’s” (the Orioles finished second in the American League that season) to, burned his business to the ground. Mob mentality.
Many thought Baltimore would escape the nationwide riots that ensued directly after the King assassination. Baltimore, particularly in 1968, reflected its immigrant roots. Each block reflected a different ethnic group from Polish to Italian to Lumbee Indians. Few people looked alike from an ethnic standpoint. Everyone was an outsider to a neighborhood just a block away.
Two days later, April 5, the first aggressive act in the form of a firebomb thrown through the window of Hoffman’s Liquor Store, officially started what would be known as the Baltimore Riot of 1968.
As a non-violent protest or merely to show respect for a fallen leader, students at Coppin State College and Northwestern High school refused to attend classes. Rather than escalate the situation, Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro asked for Sunday to be a special day of prayer for a city being torn apart. He also announced that Monday would be a day of city-wide mourning for King. The city was holding its own. In the meantime, Mayor Spiro Agnew put the National Guard as well as the State Police on alert.
Then, what officials and neighbors alike prayed wouldn’t happen did: all hell broke loose on April 6 in Baltimore, a city where Black and white had lived side by side for years. The Baltimore Riot of 1968 had started.
People tossed rocks through windows and looted shops they were frequenting just days before. Snipers fire took hold, and local stores were burned to the ground. Looting was the course of the day.
City officers were outmanned, and the backup from the State Troopers were not enough to quell the situation. In fact, Balitmore City Police officers have commented that they didn’t even attempt to stop the looting. Their sole purpose was to contain the riot, stop it from spreading to new areas.
Some locals took matters into their own hands to back up the officers in their endeavors to corral the looters. In the Native American section of town, neighbors put together a physical human chain, making it known that no one would come into their neighborhood to destroy it.
Eventually, Gov. Spiro Agnew declared a state of emergency, calling in the National Guard.
In an effort to restore civility, a curfew was imposed from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the sale of alcohol and firearms were banned. Gas stations could not sell fuel in containers, and had to close at night entirely. County offices closed early, and local businesses were asked to follow suit.
It wasn’t enough to restore peace. Community leaders, ministers, a force of almost 2,000 BCPD officers, 500 State Troopers and a National Guard reinforcement couldn’t calm the tension and restore order. Firefighters had to abandon trucks being used to put out the arson fires because snipers were taking shots at them from local rooftops. The mob mentality had taken hold. Rumor beget rumor. Paranoia bred more paranoia. Some believed that militant Black leaders had come to Baltimore with the sole purpose of spurring Black citizens to riot.
Ultimately, Gov. Agnew beseeched Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson to send reinforcements. And he did in the form of Federal troops. By Sunday evening, Federal troops from Fort Bragg, NC, trained in riot control hit town. They were joined by more Federal troops from Georgia two days later. It took a major show of force and city-wide restrictions to quell the violence. No wonder the Baltimore City Police Dept. couldn’t control it alone. Some reports say that 4,500 arrests were made by the end of it all, while others say that there were 5,500 arrests for curfew violations alone.
In all, the Baltimore City was in chaos, then shambles, for a full four days. Six peopled died, including an elderly man who had become trapped in a building that was torched, 700 were injured, and more than 1,000 businesses had been looted or burned with an ultimate of public and private property damage in the 13.5 million range. To put this in perspective, keep in mind this was 1968. There was 13.5 million in property damage in 1968 dollars.
From April 6 to April 14, Baltimore City, Charm City, was Chaos City. Bibber, who had offered goods to those who needed food but couldn’t pay for it, never rebuilt. He is one of many who never recovered from the event.