February is Black History Month. It’s a good time to dust off my memories of being a journalist in Baltimore during the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the early 1960s, my town’s publisher learned that a major racial protest was planned in Cambridge, Maryland. It was a small town south of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay, famous for having a fleet of commercial sailboats working to dredge oysters from the bottom of the bay.
In Cambridge, public schools and all local businesses, including restaurants and motels, were racially segregated. A local group of African Americans and their white allies were planning to lead a protest Saturday night calling for greater racial integration of schools and businesses in the community.
Protesters planned to march down Cambridge’s High Street and then hold a rally with speeches and chants in the main town center square. My city publisher assigned me to cover the story.
As I drove through Cambridge, I wondered what the attitude of the white officials was going to be. Would they protect the black citizens of their city who demonstrated for their civil rights? Or would they follow the example of a number of southern governors, who had refused to use state and local police forces to maintain public safety during civil rights demonstrations?
I speculated in my mind about the Governor of Maryland, J. Millard Tawes. A disturbing thought was that he was from rural Maryland. He had therefore grown up in a rigidly racially segregated community and no doubt, in his youth, had been a segregationist.
On the other hand, Tawes had been elected governor based on his ability to be a peacemaker and resolve issues in a way that appealed to most Marylanders, black and white alike.
If things got out of hand in Cambridge and an African-American civil rights protest turned into a race riot, would Governor Tawes intervene? Will he send the National Guard?
Downtown Cambridge in the early 1960s looked like the downtown core of any average small American town. It was maybe four square blocks. The streets were lined with shops and stores. Most of the buildings looked like they were built at the turn of the 20th century, but many storefronts had been modernized with large bay windows and neon signs.
I walked to the main crossroads in town. It was filled with people milling around and looking like they were waiting for something to happen. The vast majority of people were white men. Many of them were quite beefy and looked tough.
The crowd grew as more and more white people arrived in downtown Cambridge. I wondered, “Was I standing in the middle of a white crowd? Was it the peaceful calm before the nasty storm of racial confrontation? Would segregationist whites soon beat the blacks protesting in the middle of Cambridge?
Four or five blocks away, on the main street of town, I could see a large number of black citizens and a few white citizens walking steadily toward downtown. Similar to civil rights protesters across the United States at that time, they waved pro-racial integration signs, sang hymns and shouted civil rights slogans.
The white crowd now stood in the middle of the street, defiantly blocking the path of civil rights protesters to downtown. Slowly and steadily, block by block, African-American protesters continued their civil rights march downtown. When the protest marchers were just a block away, I could see their faces and hear their voices as they sang their songs and shouted their slogans.
Suddenly there was the sound of loud truck engines and squealing brakes as a convoy of military trucks pulled up to the Cambridge town center intersection. National Guard soldiers armed with rifles jumped out of the trucks and began to take up positions around the crossroads.
An army jeep stopped. The commander of this particular Maryland National Guard contingent came out. He turned and walked towards the civil rights protesters. He raised both arms in the air to signal them to stop walking. He said:
“Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes has declared martial law in Cambridge. You are all, whites and blacks, to immediately return to your homes. A military curfew is in effect from this time.
The reaction to the orders of the military commander was immediate. Civil rights protesters quickly backed down the street they had just walked down. White people either walked home or returned to their automobiles and drove off.
Although raised racially segregated, Governor Tawes had ordered the Maryland National Guard to prevent violence that night in Cambridge. This civil rights dispute would be settled through negotiation, not a white mob beating up civil rights protesters while local and state officials stood idly by and did nothing.
Although it ended peacefully, the confrontation in Cambridge, Maryland that night was significant for its typicality. In the early 1960s, incidents like Cambridge were happening all over the United States, especially in the South. Taken together, all of these events have strengthened national support for civil rights reform.
“The fires of discord” are burning across America, President John F. Kennedy said as he sent the bill to Congress that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law ended discrimination forever racially legal anywhere in the United States, including Cambridge, Maryland
Bob Loevy is a retired political science professor at Colorado College. For an online tutorial on important places and events of the civil rights movement, search “Bob Loevy Home Page” on Google and click on II,1,A.