My First Arrest: Gwynn Oak in Baltimore, 1963

(Written July 7, 2013; Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Waskow. All rights reserved. Write me at Awaskow@aol.com  to ask permission to publish.) )

How did I come to be arrested 50 years ago? On July 4, 1963, I was a Senior Fellow at a tiny research center, the Peace Research Institute. As I had done for a number of years on the Fourth, I was rereading the Declaration of Independence. when I got a call from Carol Cohen McEldowney, may her memory be a blessing. She was my research assistant.

 She was calling from Baltimore, asking me to wire money for bail for her and Todd Gitlin , whom I knew, and for some other members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who had just been arrested at the Gwynn Oak amusement park in Baltimore, for a “walk-in” to end its exclusion of Black folk.

 In that park I had danced my senior prom for my all-white, all-male high school in 1950, when like all Baltimore public schools it was formally and legally segregated  by race -– and remained so till after the Supreme Court decision of 1954. And I had danced at Gwynn Oak for my senior prom as I was graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1954. Hopkins was also all-white, except for one Negro student admitted each year in a class of hundreds.

 After Carol called, for an hour I wrestled with a triple  contradiction.:

  • One was that Carol and her friends were trying to win integration in my home town, of a place I had danced in. Seemed like my work more than theirs to do.
  • And secondly, I was ritually reading the Declaration while Carol and the others lived it. 
  • And third, I had been involved as a scholar and as a legislative assistant in issues of racial equality  and civil rights. In July 1963 I was on the verge of completing a doctoral dissertation in US history for the University of Wisconsin – a dissertation I had begun five years before, about a series of race riots in 1919. My legislative work from 1959 to 1961 had supported a US Congressman  who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which was struggling over draft civil rights legislation.

So what was I doing sitting in Washington while they were inviting arrest in my home town, upholding my Declaration of Independence, on issues I had written about?

I called a psychiatrist friend of mine who had done important research with the early sit-inners in the South, to talk out my uncertainty. After 15 minutes he said, “Arthur, sounds to me like you’ve made up your mind already.”

I had. Carol had mentioned there would be another wave of arrests on Sunday, July 7.  I decided to take part.

On Sunday morning, I went to Baltimore. I began by taking the last chapter of my dissertation to my mother, for her to type. (The University rules were that a dissertation had to be letter-perfect. If there were a typing error, the whole page had to be retyped. I was a terrible typist; my mother, an excellent one. So I took her the last chapter.)

Then I went to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the protesters were gathering.  When I got there, Carol and Todd took me aside. “We’re bored by this rital arrest process at the front entrance of the amusement arh,” they said. “The cops and the owner draw a line in the third, we walk across it, and we’re arrested for trespass. We’ve discovered there’s a back way into the park, across a tiny stream. We’d like to do it that way, actually get into the park itself, take a ride on the merry-go-round before they arrest us. Actually integrate the place. Are you game?”.

I knew no one else. “Sure,” I said.

When we arrived at the stream, I took off my shoes. (The others,  a lot younger and less stuffy  than I, did not.)

We walked into the park.

But we had not taken into account that on July 5, the Baltimore newspapers had headlined the protests on Independence Day and announced there would be another wave on the 7th.  So hundreds of die-hard segregationists had gathered in the park, ready to defend their turf against us “niggers, nigger-lovers, and commies.”

 We learned they were there when a huge chunk of concrete, flung by a young mother with a child at her side, caught our co-protester Alison Turaj on the side of her face. She began bleeding profusely. Then a crowd appeared, screaming at us, running toward us, surrounding us, pushing, yelling.

 As I stood there, my mind ran through my dissertation about those race riots long ago. I knew this scenario. They yelled, they pushed, they threw things – and when somebody fell down, they killed you. “I am living inside my own dissertation,” I thought.

 At that moment, the police appeared. They had no interest in threats, in violence, in rock-throwing. They arrested us, for trespass. They probably saved our lives. 

 Our march to the paddy wagon brought us past some of the same cotton candy stands and thrill rides that I could remember from when I danced at Gwynn Oak fifteen years before. I felt utterly pierced by the knowledge that this was my Baltimore, the mob my fellow Baltimoreans, showing me hatred that I had never had to face, but that Baltimore Negroes must have faced for all their lives.

We were singing the verse from “We Shall Overcome”: “We are not afraid.” Our voices were quavering. We were afraid. But we were also joyful. We had challenged and been challenged.  Courage was acting despite fear, not without it.

 An Associated Press photographer caught the moment as we moved under arrest. The photo appeared the next morning on Page 1 of the Baltimore Sun.*  For ten years, Blacks had been demonstrating, boycotting, and going to court about the segregation of Gwynn Oak. They had brought the city to the edge of change. I heard that the blood on Alison’s face -–  the wound required twelve stitches and endangered her eye –- became, for the “moderate” leaders of Baltimore, the final drop in the rainstorm.

They insisted that the County Executive of Baltimore County, Spiro Agnew, enter into negotiations with the owner of the park. On August 28, the same day as the Great March For Jobs And Freedom in Washington DC at which Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, an African-American child rode on the Gwynn Oak merry-go-round – no longer a “trespasser.”
* Those in the photo include Alison Turaj, with blood streaming down her face and staining her dress; to Alison’s right,  Carol Cohen McEldowney, whose memory is a blessing; to her right, Todd Gitlin, now a well-known sociologist at Columbia University, whose book on The Sixties has a passage on the Gwynn Oak arrests; and to Alison’s left, me, with shoes in hand.

That summer, I wrote an essay on the arrests that appeared originally as an article in the Saturday Review. It was later published as the opening chapter of my book Running Riot: A Journey Through the Official Disasters and Creative Disorder of American Society (Herder and Herder, 1970).

Here are excerpts from that essay.

Why Jail?

A basic question: if I feel that scholarship and writing are important tasks for me to keep on with (and I do), what place should something like civil disobedience have in my life? Scientists get exempted from the military draft; should intellectuals be exempted from nonviolent (but risky) protest? Ultimately, I decided it is dishonest to urge without undertaking, and impossible to understand without acting.

I was prepared to go back to Gwynn Oak, but the management, under pressure of the demonstrations, agreed to integrate the park.  I scarcely expect to be on the picket lines every Sunday. But where an event reaches out to touch my life again as this one did, I do not think I will be able to stay at my desk.

A note from 50 years later: The last line of this article was in fact prescient. Gwynn Oak was for me the first of about 22 arrests in various protests. The most recent, as part of an interfaith group challenging the President to act more vigorously on the climate crisis, was at the White House on March 21, 2013 – –  almost fifty years after Gwynn Oak.

In 1963, the county executive of Baltimore County who ordered our arrest was Spiro Agnew. (He was later Governor of Maryland and Vice-President of the US under Richard Nixon. In 1973 he resigned that office in disgrace, charged with bribery and extortion during his tenure of all three offices.) In July 2013, the present county executive will join in celebrating the activists who ended segregation at the park.

Is the presence of the county executive an index to decent social change? Yes. But it is also true that today millions of Black Americans are in prison for nonviolent possession of marijuana – a far higher percentage than whites who are imprisoned for the same offense, though researchers find that this “crime” is actually committed in about equal proportions in the two communities. An index of worsening racism.

I can’t end this note without honoring the memory of one of my comrades in the arrest -– Carol Cohen McEldowney. In 1963 she had taken a year off from being a student at the University of Michigan, and then became my research assistant for that year. She was a member of the first generation of SDS -– Students for a Democratic Society -– and her example convinced me to join SDS, as probably its oldest member.  It was she who called me on the evening of July 4 to ask me to post bail for some of those who had been arrested that day at Gwynn Oak -– the call that resulted in my deciding to join the protest on July 7.

Carol went on to do powerful activist work in a neighborhood of poverty-stricken whites in Cleveland, to take part in an illegal antiwar visit by American activists to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and then to play an important part in the women’s movement in Boston. She was killed in a car crash in 1973. Her Hanoi Journal—1967 was published in 2007 by the University of Massachusetts Press.Her life was a model of compassion and commitment; her death, a loss to us all.

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