Archives of Maryland Documents for the Classroom
Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, MD 21401
10:05 P.M., Monday, July 24
After delivering a fiery speech, Brown, followed by 25-30 people, walks toward Race Street, the negro-white dividing line. Without prior warning, a deputy sheriff stationed at Race Street discharges a shotgun twice. Brown is slightly wounded by one of the pellets. The group retreats, gathering back on Pine Street, and grows to a crowd of about 100.
Approximately 11:30 P.M. - 12:20 A.M.
A compact car containing 4-6 whites makes three runs through the Negro area, either shooting or throwing firecrackers. A Negro policeman says he cannot stop the car because it is driven by whites. By the third run some Negroes have armed themselves and returned the fire. Later evidence indicates the car was hit. No one injured.
Approximately 12:15 - 12:30 A.M.
Officer shot at Pine and Douglas, away from the area of most activity. Hit with shotgun pellets, wounded, as he responded to a report that windows in a laundry had been broken (three broken, no looting). Prior to the shot, the youths, according to the wounded officer, were acting like they fully expected, and were very afraid, that the police car would open fire on them.
Approximately 1:00 A.M.
Crowd of about 100 youths pours some gasoline onto street and lights it.
Approximately 1:45 A.M.
Small fire at store, extinguished by officer.
2:00 - 2:15 A.M.
Pine Tree School Fire. Spreads, finally envelops two blocks. (One Negro youth later convicted of setting fire.) A crowd of 1,000 Negroes gathers to watch the fire. Crowd not violent, many members want to help put out fire. White linemen at work in area not molested.
There were various reports of shooting in the period after Brown was slightly wounded by the deputy. Since some of these reports were made by people not at the scene, it is difficult to tell how much shooting was going on then.
The only "shots" that can be identified were those explosions coming from the nightriding car and the return fire of Negroes in the area.
8:00 A.M., Tuesday morning, till 9:00 P.M., Wednesday night
Approximately 9:00 P.M., Wednesday, July 26
Rally at Main and Pine Streets. National Guard jeep passes by. Empty beer can thrown at it. (Field report says rocks and stones thrown at truck. Probably wrong. Speaker at meeting took notes of events immediately thereafter.)
Approximately 10:00 P.M.
Youths go on minor rampage. Overturn telephone booth to build barricade; pelt Negro police car and white car with rocks and bottles; knock tops off parking meters; attempt, without success, to set fire to a number of buildings.
Approximately 11:00 P.M.
After warning, crowd on Pine Street is dispersed by National Guard using gas. Speaker at earlier rally is arrested.
This ends the series of events termed the Cambridge "riots." If we accept widespread mass violence as one of the definitive characteristics of a riot, the term seems inappropriate to the events in Cambridge.
In order to fully understand the response of the Negro community and local white authorities (especially the latter) to Brown's visit and ensuing events, it is necessary to refer to the first phase of confrontation between the races that occurred in 1963. At that time Gloria Richardson was leading a militant Negro movement which was stubbornly resisted by white authorities wishing to uphold segregation. Violent attacks by white citizens led Negroes to arm themselves for self-defense and to respond violently. The town was finally placed under martial law, the National Guard enforcing an uneasy peace.
Subsequently, Miss Richardson left town, and the Negro movement deprived of her leadership, dissolved. Local organizations such as the NAACP and the Non-violent Action Committee became relatively inactive. Civil rights organizations in Baltimore which had aided the Cambridge movement were carrying out activities elsewhere between 1964 and 1967. On the surface, at least, all was quiet comparing this period to the previous period of militant protest, street marches, and intense confrontation between Negro demonstrators and white authorities.
The latter, for their part, viewed the sharp decline in overt militancy after Miss Richardson's departure and the withdrawal of the State National Guard as confirmation for their favored interpretation of events. In the perspective of many Cambridge officials, Cambridge did not have a serious racial problem. The disturbances in 1963-64 were primarily the work of outsiders, demonstrators from out of town, the National Press, hidden subversive groups, and General Gelston of the State National Guard. Negroes did not have any legitimate grievances, so there was really nothing for them to protest about. Gloria Richardson was a local malcontent motivated by personal ambition and jealousy, while Gelston was seen as having an active role in helping to "stage" demonstrations so he could get publicity and recognition.
Nevertheless, despite the optimism of local officials about their situation, there existed in Cambridge beneath the surface quiescence a high level of grievances among Negroes. The prolonged period of conflict between the races during 1963-1964 had produced a latent polarization of forces in the town. Negro consciousness had undergone a considerable change. Prior to the protest period, there was some legitimacy for local officials to think Cambridge Negroes were happy because "they never asked for anything." The protests, if nothing else, had developed the feeling among Cambridge Negroes that they did have the right to expect benefits from the government and make demands upon it.
Negro grievances and demands seemed to be fairly well-defined and specific during months before the precipitation of what seems to be a second phase of group conflict in Cambridge. The interview data show a high agreement on the need for change in the following areas:
1. Housing. Following the 1963-1964 period, some new, low-cost housing for Negroes was built. The quality of the new housing is reportedly very good. The complaints of Negro informants is that there is not enough of it, while dilapidated housing which was supposed to be replaced is still in use. The city administration is believed to be dragging its heels in putting up more public housing. There is also a good deal of frustration over the failure to enforce the local housing code. One of the accomplishments of the militant period was the encouragement of the passing of a modern housing code which, if enforced, would compel white landlords to considerably improve the many ramshackle buildings in which Negroes live. Enforcement of the code, however, has been minimal at best.
2. Police and Administration of Justice. There was strong resentment at what was felt to be discriminatory practices in the police and administration of justice. Of particular concern was the limited authority of Negro police. An unwritten rule of the department is that the Negro police can only arrest Negroes for law infractions, and that they have to call the main station for permission if they must arrest whites. The lack of complaint channels is also a problem. Few complaints are ever lodged against the police by Negroes because there is a general belief that it would just be a waste of time.
3. Employment Training and Poverty Programs. Frustration existed over the failure of what government programs existed to reach the people who most needed them, the irrelevancy of many training programs -- people being trained for specific jobs only to find they could not gain employment after completing the program -- and the lack of training in such areas as building and construction. The latter area is recognized as a lucrative source for employment and high wages, and Negroes at present are nearly totally excluded. Although the employment situation in Cambridge, according to businessmen, is "tight," Negroes complain about the low access to high-paying, status jobs. Businessmen complain about the lack of reliability in their Negro workers. This latter image seems to be due to the fact that many talented youth leave Cambridge for other cities, while many of those who were trained by local businessmen take higher paying jobs with the state and federal governments as soon as they can. The remaining pool of workers lack skills, are culturally more in tune with the requirements of a seasonal cannining economy than they are with the disciplined requirements of Cambridge's new industry, and are unhappy about having to continue to work at menial jobs with little possibility of advancement.
4. Education. The local "open choice" program which is used apparently to let white students living near Negro areas travel to schools in white areas is a source of complaints; so is the continued use of outmoded and dangerous facilities. A major source of controversy in the community for some time had been the continued use of an elementary school which, according to a local policeman, he had attended nearly a half-century before. The school had been condemned as a firetrap, yet the school superintendent refused to transfer the students to other schools because of the possibility of "overcrowding." The suspicion in the community was that what the school superintendent did not want to do was to be put in a position where he would have to integrate classes at the lowest levels. The "orderly" program of school integration had, from the perspective of the militants, been going very slowly. Many Negro teachers were also very dissatisfied about their situation in the school system, with over twenty resigning at the end of the Spring 1967 semester.
5. General Attitudes of Authorities toward Negroes. Finally, it is important to mention that the attitudes of public authorities toward Negroes continued to be a source of considerable bitterness. There was the complaint, borne out by interviews with city officials, that city officials considered talking with the militants as a "waste of time." There was the complaint that the police chief is totally unable and unwilling to talk with Negro representatives in a "man-to-man" way as an equal. There was the complaint that the school superintendent was similarly intransigent and stubborn where it came to requests and suggestions coming from Negroes, no matter how reasonable and logical a suggestion might be.
These complaints about the general attitudes of public officials are symptomatic of the fundamental obstacle confronting Negroes in getting anything done for them -- their low political access. A good deal of the difficulty stems from the strong segregationist attitudes held by local officials. The attitude of the police chief toward Negro protest and the proper way law enforcement officers should approach Negroes is nicely summed up in the following quotes from his interview: "Freedom of speech is our greatest problem," and "When you tell a darkie something, you have to mean it." The general quality of his police force is very low, with the chief having a distinct preference for officers with limited education (8th or 9th grade).
There is, as was mentioned previously, a strong tendency not to see Negroes as having any legitimate grievances. Besides, the organization of group power is such that the desires of Negroes have little effect on the outcome. In the area of housing, the lack of enforcement of the building code is due to the exorbitant power of a handful of white landlords. These are estimated as owning from between two-thirds to eighty per cent of the property in Negro areas. They have exerted their influence not to have the code enforced.
The local fire department, a volunteer organization, is a considerable force in city politics and has opposed Negro demands at every turn. Being a voluntary organization, is maintains itself through the ties among its members and various social service benefits it can provide. Politically, it functions as the Cambridge equivalent of "Tammany Hall." It affects the content of public policy issues. For example, the fire department actively campaigned for the defeat of the local public accommodations law in 1963. The present mayor, a segregationist, was a former member of the volunteer fire department. The department ran a segregated swimming pool which was a source of community tension for a period. No Negroes belong to the department, and they are clearly not wanted as members. During a crisis period in 1963-64 when the firemen refused to fight fires in the Negro area, the former mayor had to threaten replacing them with a "paid fire department" before the voluntary fire department would exercise their public responsibility.
Politically, Negroes have very little representation, and the men presently running the city government were clearly elected without Negro support. The present mayor received only three Negro votes. There is one Negro councilman, a seventy-four-year-old man who is also president of the city council and has been on the council for over fifteen years. His orientation has been to try to cooperate closely with whites, working for gradual change within the context of community harmony as the path for Negro progress. Many whites apparently respect him, and he reportedly had a considerable following among older Negroes. But the gains he has been able to achieve for his community have been minimal, and he exercises little power. A petty indication of his lack of power is illustrated by the fact that the small park bearing his name is run-down and uncared for. A more fundamental indicator of his importance was his total inability, during the recent crisis, to get the fire department to go into the Negro business district and keep it from burning down.
Tension ameliorating agencies are totally absent in Cambridge. At the time of the recent disturbance, there was neither a functioning human relations committee or a police-community relations group. There was a human relations commission at one time, but this was dissolved by the new mayor when he took office. Before that it had not been particularly active.
Finally, it needs to be pointed out that there are no groups within the white community of Cambridge that can be considered as allies of the Negroes. The churches have been largely indifferent; their ministers, with the exception of the Catholic Church, reflecting the predominant segregationist sentiment. Those who speak in support of Negro grievances face the severe penalty of social ostracism.
Local businessmen have shown a total lack of interest in the race problem, or at least an unwillingness to get involved. This in part seems to be accounted for by the wage and industry situation in Cambridge. At one time it was a one-company town. New industry was attracted by the low wage scale and the promise of a tax-free period. There is a fear that unionism of Cambridge's unorganized workers would considerably raise the wage scale. And there is some indication that businessmen see the present race situation which divides Negro and black-white workers as a positive factor in preventing the development of a strong union movement in Cambridge.
As can be seen, community peace in Cambridge rested on a very tenuous basis during 1964-67. The tensions generated by a high grievance level among Negroes on the one hand, and an unwillingness by whites to grant Negroes genuine political access on the other, made the maintenance of surface harmony a precarious balance -- one that could easily be upset. What was lacking to upset it was new leadership and organization to replace the first, and now dissolved protest structure.
The racial situation in Cambridge began to move toward a second phase of escalating conflict with a movement toward new leadership attempts in early June 1967. The precipitating incident setting the new organizational attempts in motion was a fight between a Negro youth and a white youth in which the white youth was aided by his dog, encouraging the latter to bite the Negro boy. The angry father of the Negro youth went to the States Attorney of Dorchester County to protest and met rebuff. The failure of this important official to act on this matter of great symbolic importance quickly generated intense anger toward the States Attorney. The use of dogs by whites in disputes between the races is a very touchy point among Negroes, since it is a direct attack on their dignity, as well as their persons. Matters were not helped any when the white youth, found guilty in court, was given a suspended fine at the same time that a Negro youth was being held on $25,000 bond for setting false fire alarms. The inequalities in the penalties for the white and Negroes boys, the sense that whites cared more for insuring reliability in the fire control system than they did in dignity for Negroes, precipitated energy for a new mobilization.
There were definitely signs in subsequent weeks that an activist orientation was growing and that Cambridge was heading toward another crisis period. Two or three attempts had been made during June and July to burn down a local elementary school that was a source of great bitterness in the Negro community. There was a very widespread consensus throughout the community, according to our informants that the school should be destroyed. The school was a condemned fire trap, dangerous to children, and a focal point for the anger of parents, since the school administration was adamant in its insistence that the school would be used when classes began in the fall. The school had apparently come to have significant meaning within the community as a symbol of an intransigent school system and of a city administration that had been persistently unresponsive to the Negro community.
Another event which seemed to have had an effect on the developments of the evening of July 24th was a fire which burned the Negro Elks Lodge, a center for social activities, to the ground. It was suspected that the fire was the result of a white arsonist (although an official at the club says he believes it was done by a disgruntled member). And when the volunteer fire department trucks arrived, there were some stones thrown at the equipment. (This event provided some justification in reality to the fears of white firemen about going into the Negro area on the evening of the 24th).
Along with unorganized expressions of discontent, there were significant developments in the area of leadership and competition between emerging "moderate" and "militant" elements.
The local NAACP was revived, Mrs. Richardson returning to drum up support at a meeting held just a few days before H. Rapp Brown arrived. The local ministerial alliance began attempting to take the initiative in representing the moderate elements in the community. At the same time, several quiescent militant groups were drawn together to form The Black Action Federation. One of their first acts was to appear at a rally held by the States Rights Party which was subsequently broken up by the police and ask for "equal time." This latter incident put them in the public eye, and in order to attract new followers and reactivate the militance of Cambridge Negroes, the federation invited H. Rap Brown to speak at a meeting. An announcement of his impending arrival was circulated two weeks before he was to appear.
But more than Negro militance, that invitation reactivated the fear, anxieties, and hostility of the white community. The evidence supports the idea that the mutual alienation of the Negro and white communities -- an alienation charged with hostility -- led to rumors, anxieties and misconceptions that affected both sides but were particularly exaggerated among local authorities. Brown's presence, or the anticipation of it, served as a catalyst which brought about latent antagonisms and predispositions to action -- especially on the parts of the Cambridge officials.
When the mayor, police chief, and others heard of Brown's plans to come to Cambridge, a set of reactions was evoked which anticipated a drastic and dramatic escalation of the type of collective action led by Gloria Richardson in 1963-1964. In brief, the mayor, et al. expected Brown to start and lead a riot that would be coherent, deliberate, and well planned. What was this plan as it was conceived in the minds of local officials? That local police and firemen were to be drawn into the ghetto and trapped there, thus opening the downtown business district to attack. As Miss Richardson had organized and directed marches, so the local authorities apparently expected Brown to organize and direct a riot. They had, in fact, met several times before his arrival to plan a course of action appropriate to the tactics they expected him to employ. Since an attack on the downtown business district was anticipated, for example, police were stationed at Race Street for action. The police were prepared to assume any large group of Negroes walking toward the business section had arson on their minds and that force would be necessary to turn them back.
This view of impending events and the anticipatory counter-measures were reinforced no doubt by an awareness of the escalating pattern of violence in other cities and the popular suspicions of whites in those cities, conveyed through the press that "outsiders were responsible."
It has been said that history repeats itself, appearing first as tragedy, then as farce. Though there is nothing farcical about the destruction of two city blocks, the events of July 24-26 were in a way a slipshod re-enactment of the 1963 experience -- a Negro rally organized by militants; a dramatic Negro speaker; a quasi-violent white reaction (the two shotgun blasts by the deputy, the carful of white night-riders); a violent, thought limited, counter-reaction by Negroes (firing at the night-riders, the shooting of the officer, the window breaking and attempted arson at the laundry, the arson at the school); what can only be called retributive violence by local white authorities (allowing the school fire to become a major conflagration); and at this point the summoning of the National Guard.
The farcical aspect of this re-enactment lies in the fact that there was no Negro plan of action, little Negro violence, and, with one exception, no violence by white citizens. But local authorities and Cambridge Negroes respectively acted) as though there had been or would be.
For the authorities, evidence "confirming" their conspiracy view of social chaos and Brown's leadership role in a plan to attack Cambridge was not long in coming. In response to this confirmed vision, and within a half-hour after Brown finished talking, two shot-gun blasts were fired without warning in his direction by a deputy sheriff. This was the first act of violence during the evening.
Three specific factors seem to provide the immediate context which confirmed white fears for the worst: (1) The content of the speech and the excitement it generated or was seen to generate; (2) The communication of information about what Brown said and how the crowd responded by the Negro police who were the informants for white authorities; and (3) Brown's walking a local girl home, being followed by a group of local youths, which was interpreted by the authorities as the beginning of an actual attack. AN ANALYSIS OF BROWN'S SPEECH
Since the speech itself has been accused of being a cause of the subsequent disorders, it is worthwhile to examine it in terms of its basic themes and tenor and in its role in events. Table A summarizes in aphoristic fashion the themes of Brown's speech as he spontaneously moved from topic to topic. It is based on a tape recording of about twenty minutes of the forty-minute talk. The sentence summaries correspond to the chronological development of the talk.
Synopsis of H. Rapp Brown's Speech in Cambridge
1. We should control our own communities separate from the honkie animals.
2. We don't need white-appointed nigger cops.
3. A dream deferred leads to riots, and Cambridge needs its riot.
4. The time for non-violence is gone. Be non-violent in your community and violent elsewhere. We built America and if it doesn't come around, we'll burn it down.
5. Black is a beautiful color, not evil as you've been told. Be proud you're black -- remember you built this country after whites stole you from Africa.
6. Our ancestors were worked to death, and they worked so we could have a better future, so we have to instruments of change.
7. The streets and businesses in our community belong to us and we must take them. If I can't control my life, the whites aren't going to control theirs.
8. It makes no difference that they outnumber us, we work in their homes and can keep them there.
9. The Man hates and kills black people. He grinds in the hate.
10. Our war is here, not the Cracker's war in Vietnam. (Our bag ain't the Cracker-barrel?)
11. America is killing black people, starving them, but has enough money to go to the moon. They're out for genocide. They starve our kids, and let rats kill them, and 30 per cent of the deaths in Vietnam are black.
12. You better get some guns like they did in Plainfield. It's not stealing when the white man stole us from Africa. Killing Gleason was no more brutal than what cops do to us.
13. Whites only respect force and power, and that's how we can take control of our community. Get some guns and fight because Whitey's declared war on you.
14. The only thing he recognizes is an eye for an eye.
15. You've got to get some stores even if you have to burn them down and run him out. The stores and streets are yours and you've got to take them.
16. You have to take your freedom, because it's not a gift, you were born free.
17. You're making money for the Honkie so he can live well and leave you living here like this.
18. You should burn down that school and take over the Honkie school. He burned your Elk's home so you couldn't have any fun.
19. Five nigger cops ain't no progress. You have to get rid of your black enemies, too.
20. Get the Uncle Tom cops out of their cars and out of your community.
21. Exercise your manhood and protect your families. Get some Deacons for Defense because the Man is going to kill blacks.
22. Detroit is good because they killed whites and destroyed their god, property.
23. The Man just wants you to work for him and spend the money at his stores.
24. The Man won't know how "bad" black is until we move in on him. You've got to take control of your own community because anything here you don't control is a weapon against you.
25. Don't believe what you're told about the country's "heroes," Don't celebrate the 4th of July, because you're not free. And you're slaves, not citizens.
26. There are no black officeholders here, just five nigger cops who are your enemies.
27. When the white man goes after all of us, help the Uncle Toms if they kill whites.
28. Lyndon Johnson is worse than Hitler, using crueler means to kill blacks here and in Vietnam. He knows the Viet Cong is black, too.
29. The Honkie is surrounded and outnumbered by the dark-skinned people of the world.
30. While we were being non-violent, whites were killing us.
31. The Man is more violent than you are, but he'll scream violence when you burn a few filthy stores.
32. The Man taught us violence, and we must use it on him, not our brothers.
33. Pay him back at every chance for the last 400 years. Keep that animal out of your community and keep him from screwing your women.
34. Shoot him to death, don't love him to death.
35. If this town doesn't come around, burn it. If I have to live like this, I'll fix it so Whitey has to live like this, too.
36. It hurts him most when you hit him financially -- burn his stores. Don't tear up your community, tear up his.
It is very clear from the list of statements above that the speech was unequivocally militant, radical, and revolutionary. The basic character of black-white relations is viewed as that of a race war. Half of the speech seems to be taken up in denouncing the symbolic White Devil. The other half is exhorting Negroes to defend themselves, take control of their communities, and be prepared to use violence against the white oppressor.
Within this general ideological vision, concrete references to Cambridge are made -- specifically:
1. Cambridge needs a riot.
2. Negroes should have burned down the local elementary school.
3. Whites burned the Elk's home so Black people couldn't have fun.
4. Get rid of your "five nigger cops."
5. Tear up the town, if the man doesn't come around.
It is, of course, the contiguity between these inflammatory remarks and encouragements and the subsequent disorders which provides the basis of charge that Brown incited rioting and arson.
However, the data on the relation of Brown's remarks, or the mood he may have invoked in his listeners, to the events that followed is far from clear. Although generating considerable excitement among his listeners, there is, for example, little evidence that Brown's speech immediately stirred members of the crowd to initiate illegal action. Also, the interview data indicates that the response to Brown's exhortations were not universally favorable, with some Negroes in attendance being very much turned off by his strident and radical militance. There was no immediate "mob march" at the end of the talk. The crowd had, in fact, begun to disperse. No attempts had been made by Brown to lead a march anywhere.
Instead he went into the office being used by the Black Action Federation to exchange addresses and discuss his talk with the leaders of the Black Action Federation who had invited him to town. At this time, however, white authorities were already receiving information supporting the notion that "all hell was about to explode." Their informants were the Negro city policemen who were assigned to report what Brown said and the mood of the community. The white city officials did not attend the rally but waited outside of the Negro area.
The report the Negro policemen brought out of the Negro area was pessimistic and the policemen showed genuine anxiety. They had, of course, just heard themselves referred to as "nigger cops" who the local Negroes should do away with. We do not know how loud the cheers were to this suggestion by Brown, but the position of the Negro policemen in his community is admittedly precarious, a source of ambivalent feelings within the community to put it mildly; and, in any case, few men enjoy hearing themselves denounced in public. Whatever the forces (see 23a) that determined the Negro policemen's view of the situation and the content of his information to his white superior, the immediate effect on the white authorities was the precipitation of the belief that physical combat was about to start.
Without going into an extended analysis of the social-psychology of the relations between Negro police officers and white authorities in cities with a segregationist tradition, it may also be reasonable surmised that there were pressures on the Negro police to lean toward the pessimistic side in judging the degree of threat posed by Brown. Since whites anticipated some form of militant action, to underestimate the crisis would have placed the Negro officer in an awkward position (i.e. not telling his white superiors what they really want to hear). Also, there would undoubtedly be greater personal risks involved for a Negro officer in underestimating a potential crisis than in overestimating one. Should Negroes riot, he would be blamed for not conveying the severity of the situation.
Any sign at all that Negroes in a group were walking toward the white area was ready to be interpreted as a sign that the attack was underway.
Then it happened. Brown did walk toward the police line with a group of about twenty-five Negroes behind him. According to reports he was "only escorting a girl home" who was afraid to walk by herself because she had to go towards Race Street past the area where the police were standing in watch; moreover, rumor had it that the police were not allowing any Negroes across Race Street.
Whether Brown was "only walking a girl home," or whether their were other motivations as well can only be speculated. The girl perhaps could have walked home another way. It might even be argued that the girl's request and Brown's walking with her in the direction of the police line had the latent motivation of showing courage, taunting the police, or precipitating some kind of confrontation. In any case, one was shortly forthcoming.
As Brown and the girl began their walk, a group of Negro teenagers and youths followed behind. Given the view of impending assault, the line of youths with Brown at the head must have looked like the first attack, with Brown "leading" the foray. A sheriff's deputy immediately fired two shots; without warning Brown was slightly wounded by a ricocheting shotgun pellet. This initiated the chain of disorderly events that were to mark the rest of the evening.
It might be added here that Brown's role in events seems to be clearly limited to what has already been described: an increase in the level of general excitement, and the construction of a definition of a situation by the authorities that assumed a riot was underway.
A fire was set at the elementary school that Brown said should be burned to the ground. But that was not until over four hours after the speech was over, and several events involving the police and the community had exacerbated tensions and anxieties to a very high point. The act of arson itself was not a crowd event, but an act carried out by a small number of individuals after the streets had been largely emptied.
Would there have been another fire at the school that evening even if Brown had not spoken? A climate of opinion that the school should be destroyed certainly pre-existed Brown's speech in Cambridge, and it is difficult to know whether the youths who initiated the arson were responding to this general climate primarily, or whether they got the idea directly from listening to or hearing about Brown's speech. According to the youths who were finally picked up for arson, what motivated them primarily was the "good deal of talk in the air" that somebody ought to burn the school down.
Similarly, the appearance of Negroes on the street with guns cannot be directly attributed to Brown's speech. Armed Negroes did not precede, but followed the first shooting incident. The display of weapons was a direct response to a night-raiding car that was seen making passes through the community shooting guns or setting off fire crackers. After the compact car had made its first or second run through the Negro area, a rumor began to circulate that there was about to be an attack on the ghetto by large numbers of whites. This expectation and the response of many Negroes to this perceived threat -- arming themselves -- was no doubt conditioned by the memories of similar incidents during the interracial strife of 1963-1964.
Other events that followed in the evening also had previous analogs in the 1963-1964 period.
When the white police officer was shot, the police chief went on an emotional binge in which his main desire seems to have been to kill Negroes, a repetition of his reaction to Negro initiatives in 1963, when the ex-mayor says he had to "sit on him" frequently to keep him in line. When the school fire was spreading, firemen refused, as they had in 1963, to go into the Negro area.
Brown's speech, the "march," the shooting of an officer, and the fire at Pine Street School all tended to confirm the preconceived notions of local authorities, but beyond this the authorities often acted in such a way as to bring about results which would further reinforce their preconceptions. Thus, the deputy's shooting of Brown created a disturbance where there had been none before, and it is probable that the later shooting of an officer was a response, at least in part, to the deputy's act. As was mentioned earlier, the wounded officer reported fear among the Negro youths in the area around the store he was investigating. The police had been driving around with weapons bared and guns sticking out of windows. Upon seeing him, the youths, according to the officer, dropped to the ground "like tin soldiers." Considering the earlier incident involving Brown, their fears were not without foundation.
Further, when the Pine Street School fire was started, the police chief and the volunteer fire department refused to respond to calls for help, in effect creating an enormous fire which could then be perceived as the very heart of the "riot."
Four factors seem to have been involved in this refusal. First, vengeance: "You goddam niggers started this fire, now you goddam niggers watch it burn!" Second, an inability in the event to distinguish between different members of the Negro community. The "goddam niggers" as a whole were seen as responsible for the fire. Third, a perception of the crowd at the fire as violent, and hence an unwillingness to risk the "dangers" of entering the area to put it out, without the protection of the State Police. Fourth, there was the fear that committing firemen to the Negro area might divert them from fires to be set downtown, in accordance with the "riot plan" thought to have been put into effect.
(It is impossible to tell how much factors such as the third and fourth [above] were real motives, and how much rationalizations to cloak revenge.) The evidence for the revenge hypothesis certainly seems to be very strong. According to Captain Randall of the State Police, an offer was made to the local police chief and fire department chiefs to provide protection. This was in response to their position of not sending the fire trucks into the Negro area without adequate protection. To provide such protection, thirty-two men were sent to a corner one block from the fire waiting to escort the trucks in. They waited thirty minutes in vain for the trucks to arrive. Another request for trucks was made, but these did not arrive until fifteen minutes later, although the fire station was just a few blocks away. And it was not until 3:00 A.M., one hour after the report of the fire was turned in, that the police chief allowed the fire bell which would summon additional volunteers to ring.
The net result, from the point of view of local authorities, was a fire started by a violent crowd of Negroes, whose violence provided a rationale for inaction by the police chief and the fire department.
Now it is worth noting that there was no crowd at all at the beginning of the fire, so it could hardly have been the product of a violent mob of Negroes. In fact, the number of people on the street had been steadily decreasing after the initial scare of a white attack. Things had become quiet enough by midnight as to justify sending to bed the National Guard contingent that had been waiting, in case they were needed.
Further, when a crowd did assemble to watch the fire, it was entirely peaceful. One observer noted that the majority of the youths in the crowd were the off-spring of the town's "good Negroes." Not only were repeated pleas for help made to the chief and firemen, but there were repeated offers to help from members of the crowd. Negroes borrowed a hose from one of the trucks on the perimeter, but it would not fit the hydrant. (This was reported to the police chief as theft of the hose.) When fire trucks finally did come in, Negro youths came with them to help water down the rubble. And the two (or four) white linemen who were at work clipping wires were not bothered at all.
In addition to shootings, mob violence, and fires, a respectable riot these days must have widespread looting. Since there was no looting, the police chief felt compelled to produce some. Thus, he insisted that the laundry near where the officer was shot had been looted, though he was not there, and reliable witnesses at the scene reported that there had been none. And when a Negro store owner, seeing that his store was about to burn down, removed the stock and distributed it to bystanders, this was recorded by police as looting.
Even the fire might have seemed penny-ante destruction had the police chief had his way. He was at odds with the commanding officer of the Maryland State Police contingent about whether the latter would go into the crowd Monday night to help the chief disperse it. At this point, about 12:30 p.m., the Cambridge police officer had just been shot, and the chief was not in control of his emotions. There can be little doubt that he was out for revenge. "(The Chief) requested assistance... in clearing Pine Street, shooting Negroes if necessary. (The state police captain), realizing the implication of the police chief's orders, would not cooperate." Instead, he used his men to seal off the Negro section.
This dispute has reached the Maryland State Legislature, many of whose members demand to know why the state police were unwilling to disperse the crowd and thus quell the "riot." One newspaper notes a move in the Legislature to investigate "charges that state police did not enter the Negro area until the violence subsided."
There was some disorder in the streets at the time, but hardly anything that would justify an assault such as the police chief had in mind. The "night-riders" had just made their third and final run through the area; a crowd of 100-150 people, mostly youths, was on the street; some of them were armed; the crowd was about to pour gasoline in the street and light it. Over the next hour the size of the crowd dwindled and things were pretty quiet until the school was fired. Then, the crowd that gathered was interested in watching and helping put out the fire, not in violence. Essentially, the state police tactic was successful, a fact which its critics have somehow overlooked.
But had local police gone into the crowd "shooting Negroes if necessary," then as the state police captain said, "there would have been hell to pay." The chief might very well have precipitated the riot he expected.
The question, nevertheless, needs to be asked as to why there was not more Negro violence than in fact occurred during the events of July. It could be suggested that Negroes there might have been intimidated by the potential ferocity of white violence, especially by officials such as the police chief. Yet, the readiness of Negroes to pick up guns and the shooting of a white officer -- probably by a Negro -- would seem to argue in the other direction.
Similarly, it might be asked whether Negro grievances were in fact as great as they seemed. Yet, we know that the grievances were long standing, widespread among the Negro community, and well articulated before the events of July 24-26. The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the Negro population of Cambridge has been quite stable in recent years. The absence, if it is such, of large population shifts among Cambridge Negroes suggests that the social disruptions attendant on migration do not exist to any pronounced degree there. We may, therefore, expect to find a more stable family structure and more social control internal to the Negro area than would be the case, say, in a ghetto which has experienced a large immigration within the last 15 years.
This indigenous social control does not by any means preclude the use of violence by Cambridge Negroes, as was evident in 1963 when many armed for defense of their territory, and to some extent in the disturbances of July 1967. But it does suggest that the youths may be somewhat less volatile than in many large northern cities, that the threshold of violence may be higher, and that its purposes may be more specific and well defined.
To the stability of the population and the putative indigenous social control might be added the observation that Cambridge is a small southern town, with all that this implies. For example, there is relatively little anonymity in such a town -- a factor which probably reduces the potential for anomie of the sort that has been present in most northern ghettoes.
Despite the fact that a riot did not occur, newspaper accounts of the disturbance tended to propagate the notion that Brown incited a riot in Cambridge. A careful reading of available clippings indicates that newspapers in reporting the specific instances of violence were pretty close to the mark. But nevertheless, the overall impression one gets is of widespread violence following immediately upon Brown's speech. This impression is created in a number of ways. First, in headlining and generalizing about the event, terms such as "riot," "widespread violence," and "a night of gunfire and arson" create a backdrop to the details which makes them seem specific instances of a general conflagration. Second, the space given to statements by local officials assured that their interpretation of events would predominate. Significantly, in none of the articles available was there an interview with members of the Black Action Federation, the group which invited Brown and whose members were present when the incidents started. Third, there was a pronounced tendency to emphasize the connection between Brown's speech and the generalized violence that was presumed to have occurred after it. About two weeks later, for example,
in referring back to the event, an influential East Coast newspaper remarked as a matter of course on "the July 24 violence that followed a speech in Cambridge by Black Power leader H. Rap Brown." No explicit casual connection is made, but the constant repetition of "Brown -- riot in Cambridge" in the press cannot help create the impression that he started a riot. And when certain parts of Brown's speech are quoted -- e.g., "that school should have been burned down a long time ago" -- there remains little doubt in the reader's mind as to what happened.
It may be emotionally satisfying to think that Brown came to Cambridge and that therefore there was a riot, and it may be simpler for the public to grasp. But the facts are more complex and quite different.
In summary, the role of Brown seems to be this: to have induced in city officials a sense of an impending riot, which then became the basis of their subsequent actions and interpretation of events. To the extent that Brown encouraged anybody to engage in precipitous or disorderly acts, the city officials are clearly the ones he influenced most. Indeed, the existence of a riot existed for the most part in the minds of city officials, and to the extent that Negro disorder occurred, it can best be interpreted as a response to actions of the city officials. It was white uncertainty and fear as to what was to happen, and expectations that here would be a riot, rather than the actual outbreak of riotous activity on the part of Negroes that largely determined the events of July 24th. Brown was more a catalyst of white fears than of Negro antagonisms, the disturbance more a product of white expectations than of Negro initiative.
Return to Guide to Documents
The Archives of Maryland Documents for the Classroom series of the Maryland State Archives was designed and developed by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse and Dr. M. Mercer Neale and was prepared with the assistance of R. J. Rockefeller, Lynne MacAdam and other members of the Archives staff. MSA SC 2221-12. Publication no. 2395. © 1993 Maryland State Archives, rev. July 1998.
For further inquiries, please contact Dr. Papenfuse at:
Phone: MD toll free 800-235-4045 or (410) 260-6401.
|| Search the Archives || Education & Outreach || Archives of Maryland Online ] Governor General Assembly Judiciary Maryland.Gov