- Who We Were When the World Was Watching
Americans' response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was both political and visceral. In cities across the United States, communities, especially African American communities, expressed their anger and grief in acts of protest both sanctioned and unsanctioned, organized and disorganized. In many places, civil disturbances at times turned violent, and in Baltimore this resulted in six deaths, dozens of injuries, and the destruction of hundreds of public and private properties. Maryland governor Spiro Agnew ordered in thousands of National Guard troops, who were joined by US Army soldiers deployed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The nation, and the world, watched as events unfolded in Baltimore in a year marked by uprisings—or riots, as in the project's title—in cities across the US and the globe. Today, cultural historians often understand 1968 as a watershed moment, with the riots in cities from Paris to Chicago punctuating a period of rapid change and growing unrest. The long-term effects of these outpourings of public feeling can be understood historically in multiple contexts. The events in Baltimore were both a local crisis and a much larger media event. These overlapping contexts and the involvement of thousands of ordinary people make Baltimore's 1968 riots especially ripe for consideration as public history, and an acute sense of the events' importance for Baltimoreans sparked Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth. Organized by the historian Jessica Elfenbein (previously of the University of Baltimore, now at the University of South Carolina) in collaboration with the historian Elizabeth M. Nix, the librarian Tom Hollowak, and the community artist Christina Ralls, Baltimore '68 included city tours and events, an extensive oral history project, a national conference, and a book. Now, ten years after its launch, the collaboration's website is a rich repository of primary source materials and compelling multimedia scholarship. [End Page 295]
Years after the live events—a conference held on the university's campus, six community conversations held at YMCA locations around the city, and a mosaic exhibit—Baltimore '68's web presence serves as a record of those events (there are brochures, fliers, and programs available to view or download). It also presents a robust collection of archival sources, including photographs, news coverage, reports and other documents, and a large body of original scholarly documentary and interpretive work, including the results of a mapping project, dozens of original oral history interviews from residents and community leaders, a driving tour of the city, a timeline of significant events in Baltimore, and a calendar highlighting local, national, and international news events that served as part of the context for events unfolding in Baltimore.
Collectively, the materials available on Baltimore '68 are appropriate to a diversity of audiences, from students at all levels to researchers to curious locals. Throughout, the project demonstrates the value of judicious use of widely accessible technologies, the level of creativity and innovation possible even using relatively conventional tools, and the impressive scale and scope possible when students are meaningfully engaged in research. For example, students under the supervision of Deborah Weiner completed the 1968 Retrospective Calendar as part of their work for an undergraduate public history course. Nora Feinstein, a student intern, completed the site's timeline, providing an overview of the events the site covers. Using this timeline, John Schwallenberg, a community outreach worker, created a driving tour.
The self-guided tour is available as printable text and displayed online; it is also available in multiple audio formats with narration from Lenneal Henderson, now emeritus professor in the University of Baltimore's School of Public and International Formats. While the multiple formats for this increase access and usability, the real backbone of the tour is the set of thoughtful, step-by-step driving directions interspersed with historical information. Offered by an expert, the tour is available, now, freely to anyone who might want to use it to navigate the city and...