The 1968 Riot in Baltimore City, the Insurrection Act, and Federalization of the National Guard

The 1968 Riot in Baltimore City, the Insurrection Act, and Federalization of the National Guard

Following the 1968 assassination, of reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., civil disturbances broke out throughout the United States. In some cases military support was requested to aid in local law enforcement's efforts to control looting and the destruction of private and commercial property. Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. utilized the services of their state’s National Guard through an executive order issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States. Between Chicago, Baltimore and the District of Columbia, a total of 14,811 guardsmen were federalized. [1] Lieutenant General H. Steven Blum, Chief, National Guard Bureau, addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee in the first session of the 110th United States Congress on April 24, 2007. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the United States Congress requested him to speak of the “Readiness of the Army and Air National Guard.”1 Within his response, Lieutenant General Blum outlined 10 instances where the National Guard has been federalized, under the Insurrection Act, since World War II. [1]

In 1968, the Governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew declared, “a state of public crisis, emergency, and civil disturbance exists within the City of Baltimore.” [2] Until the declassification, of Major General Zais’s liaison report, it was unclear whether or not Governor Agnew requested the services of the National Guard, or the Federal government initiated proceedings for the executive order; regardless, federalization of the guardsmen occurred and 5,783 military personnel were activated in Baltimore. Today, the Insurrection Act continues to allow the President, of the United States, to activate and deploy a State’s National Guard, “to suppress insurrections and to enforce the law, including when State authorities were unable or unwilling to secure the Constitutional rights of their citizens.” [1]

Initially local police and fire departments responded to the 1968 Baltimore race riots. Municipal resources could not control rampant looting, arson and vandalism to personal and commercial property. Military representatives met with Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew and Baltimore City Mayor Delasandro to strategize how to best deal with the insurrection. It was at this meeting Governor Agnew was encouraged to request federalization of troops. As discussed in Major General Zais’s declassified “Army Liaison Team “Green” After Action Report,” [3] “It is important to recognize the degree of confusion which existed in the early stages.” [3] Initially, the presence of the National Guard only added to the confusion. Believing it was the best tactic, to parallel local police efforts, commanding officers placed troops under the direction of the police; however, “Initially, there was some concern voiced about command structure since General Gelston did not believe that the National Guard legally could be under the control of the Police.” [3] Miscommunications continued as General George Gelston informed General York, “that the Guard had been federalized, and it was not until an hour or two later that we were informed that the President had not signed either the Proclamation or the Executive Order.” [3] Ultimately, Police and National Guard forces responded in tandem to the ebb and flow of the riot. Unfortunately, much destruction and looting continued; leaving business owners, and the community at large, to protect their property by whatever means necessary.

An example, of the resourcefulness of business owners, can be found in a unique document titled, “Constitution for the Northwest Baltimore Citizens Association.” [4] Within this document was expressed a communities, “fear of lack of Police protection and breakdown of Law Enforcement Agencies.” [4] In response, to this document, monies were raised for the purchase of shotguns and ammunition. The sizable arsenal was used for the preservation of northwest business establishments. This constitution was written the day after the initial evening of rioting and demonstrates how dire the situation had become.

There is no doubt many mistakes were made by local, state and federal decision makers. Communication problems and confusion over which agencies were in charge continued throughout the 1968 riots and left policy makers and city planners to repair a city severed by racial discord. Where entire sections of the city were destroyed; 40 years later, newcomers to Baltimore would be hard pressed to find evidence of this devastating event. Without the efforts of The University of Baltimore, documentation of personal interviews, news footage, and numerous other archival materials would be lost. As the 40th anniversary approaches; one is encouraged to investigate how far we, as a Nation, have come in the struggle for racial equality.


1. H. Steven Blum, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee First Session, 110th Congress on Readiness of the Army and Air National Guard, U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary (April 24, 2007).

2. Dr. William E. Peterson, A Report of the Baltimore Civil Disturbance of April, 1968, Maryland Crime Investigating Commission (June 4, 1968), under“Search,” (accessed October 7, 2007).

3. Melvin Zais, After Action Report of DA Liaison Team-Green, Department of the Army (April 17, 1968).

4. Frank Bressler, Constitution for the Norwest Baltimore Citizens Association, The Jewis Museum of Maryland (April 8, 1968).


*Blum, H. Steven, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee First Session, 110th Congress on Readiness of the Army and Air National Guard. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, 2007.
*Bressler, Frank, Constitution for the Northwest Baltimore Citizens Association. Baltimore, Maryland: The Jewish Museum of Maryland, 1968.
*Peterson, William E., Zumbrun, Alvin J.T., A Report of the Baltimore Civil Disturbance of April, 1968. Baltimore: The Maryland Crime Investigating Commission, 1968.
*Zais, Melvin, After Action Report of DA Liaison Team-Green. Washington D.C.:Department of the Army, 1968.

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