The Baltimore Riot of 1968 began two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Rioting broke out in 125 cities across the United States, and spread to the city of Baltimore, Maryland on Saturday, April 6. The Governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, called out thousands of National Guard troops and 500 Maryland State Police to quell the disturbance. When it was determined that the state forces could not control the riot, Agnew requested Federal troops from President Lyndon B. Johnson. The riot lasted until April 14.
The riot resulted in more than 5,500 arrests, including 3,488 for curfew violations, 955 for burglary, 665 for looting, 391 for assault, and 5 for arson. There were seven deaths directly attributed to the rioting, six from fire and one by gunshot. In addition, an active Army soldier died in a traffic accident while redeploying from the city. Arsonists set more than 1,200 fires during the disturbance. Damage was estimated at over $12 million in 1968 dollars.
With the spread of civil disturbances across the nation, Maryland National Guard troops were called up for state duty on April 5, 1968, in anticipation of disturbances in Baltimore or the suburban portions of Maryland bordering Washington, DC. When rioting broke out in Baltimore on April 6, nearly the entire Maryland National Guard, both Army and Air, were called up to deal with the unrest. The notable exceptions were the state's air defense units (which manned surface to air missile sites around the state), those units already on duty in the Washington, DC area, and a unit positioned in Cambridge, Maryland (the site of race riots in 1963 and 1967). The Adjutant General of Maryland, Major General George M. Gelston, commanded the National Guard force and also was given control of the city and state police forces in the city (approximately 1,900 police officers).
The combined National Guard and police force proved unable to contain the rioting and on Sunday, April 7, federal troops were requested. Late that evening, elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina began arriving on the scene. With the intervention of federal forces, the Maryland National Guard was called into federal duty, resulting in a shift from state control (reporting to the Governor of Maryland) to federal control (reporting through the Army chain of command to the President). The federal force, Task Force Baltimore, was organized into three brigades and a reserve. These were (roughly), the XVIII Airborne Corps troops, the Maryland National Guard, and troops from the 197th Infantry Brigade from Fort Benning, Georgia (which arrived two days later). The 1,300 troops of the Maryland Air National Guard were organized in a provisional battalion and used to guard critical infrastructure throughout the city, as well as an ad hoc detention facility at the Baltimore Civic Center. Task Force Baltimore peaked at 11,570 Army and National Guard troops on April 9, of which all but about 500 were committed to riot control duties.
Rioting continued for several days as the Task Force sought to reassert control. Early on April 12, federal troops began to depart and by 6 pm that evening responsibility for riot control returned to the National Guard. At midnight Task Force Baltimore ceased to exist and the remainder of federal troops were withdrawn. Maryland National Guard troops remained on duty in the city until April 14, when Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew declared the emergency over and sent them home.
After action reports credited both the National Guard and active Army forces for being extremely disciplined and restrained in dealing with the disturbance, with only four shots fired by National Guard troops and two by active Army troops.
Organization of Task Force Baltimore
Task Force XVIII Abcar
4th Battalion, 39th Artillery Regiment
4th Battalion, 74rd Artillery Regiment
47th Engineer Battalion
197th Infantry Brigade
1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment
1st Battalion, 58th Infantry Regiment
5th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment
Task Force Oscar
Task Force Emergency Headquarters Brigade
1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment
729th Maintenance Battalion
2nd Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment (later detached to TF Abcar)
Task Force Third Brigade
2nd Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment
1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment
121st Engineer Battalion
Other participating forces:
50th Signal Battalion
135th Air Commando Group
175th Tactical Fighter Group
One of the major outcomes of the riot was the attention Spiro Agnew received when he criticized local black leaders for not doing enough to help stop the disturbance. These statements caught the attention of Richard Nixon who was looking for someone on his ticket who could counter George Wallace’s American Independent Party, third party campaign. Agnew became Nixon’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1968.
The riot had broken out mainly in the black ghettoes of East and West Baltimore in which extensive property damage and looting occurred. Many of the businesses destroyed in the riot were located along the main commercial avenues of the neighborhoods and were often owned by Whites of a Jewish background. There is some debate within the black community about whether or not this riot, in which innocent people were murdered, should be called a "riot," a "civil disturbance," or a "rebellion." While the assassination took place elsewhere, King's death had a dramatic impact on the city because of Baltimore's large African-American population. Later in the 70s, Baltimore became the national NAACP headquarters instead of New York.
In other media
The riot is mentioned on Baltimore based police dramas Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. On Homicide it is mentioned as one of Lt. Al Giardello and Detective Stuart Gharty's first assignments on the episodes "Black and Blue" and "Shades of Gray." On The Wire, it is mentioned on "Boys of Summer" as an event that proved problematic for a former Baltimore Mayor that at the same time enabled Maryland's Governor to become a Vice Presidential Nominee.