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Baltimore students demonstrate to integrate Northwood Theater, 1963
On Friday, February 15, 1963, the student-led Civic Interest Group (CIG) began a demonstration against Northwood Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. The ultimately successful demonstration took place in the context of a longer history of protests against the cinema’s white-only policy. Students, mostly from Morgan State College, had picketed the Theater many times over the course of the previous eight years. Student demonstrations organized by student council occurred annually. Just three years prior, in a tactical move to disassociate from the school and emphasize their role as citizens seeking equal rights, African American students formed the Civic Interest Group. Demonstrations by CIG had succeeded in integrating almost all facilities immediate to Morgan State’s campus except a tavern and Northwood shopping center’s theater (located just a couple blocks from the college).
In part inspired by the successes of desegregation campaigns in the Deep South, the group resolved to sharply escalate their tactics. On February 4, 1963, CIG leaders met with members of student government. Together, they agreed to adopt mass arrest as a strategy to accompany mass picketing. The challenge remained: how to recruit enough of the student body to comprise a mass movement? Using ‘pep rally’ tactics, they enlisted popular elements / leading campus personalities of the student body for the action—including Miss Morgan State and the president of the student council. On Friday, February 15, while fifty picketers drew the public’s attention outside Northwood Theater, Miss Morgan and twenty-five students walked into the lobby to buy tickets. Denied admission and refusing to leave, they were arrested. The following morning, Court Judge Joseph P. Finnerty released them.
As protests and arrests continued, the campaign grew larger. By Monday, February 19, 67 more students had given themselves up for arrest. On Monday afternoon, a second mass meeting at Morgan drew an audience of 500 from a student body of 2600. Then, the CIG Adult Assistance Committee, responsible for raising bail money, formally endorsed the policy of mass arrest. By Monday evening, 151 more people were arrested.
Alarmed, prosecuting police officers and municipal judges met to plan a response strategy. A statement issued by ranking police officers threatened to place charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct against the arrested students, with no need for warrant. Morgan administration threatened on-campus disciplinary action against student demonstrators. On the following day, Baltimore’s chief prosecuting officer told a CIG defense attorney about a possible charge of conspiracy placed against a Morgan State College professor associated with the demonstrators.
On Tuesday, February 20, the fifth day of the demonstration, the arrested demonstrators found their bail set at the unpayable amount of $600 each. Total bail amounted to a staggering $90,200. Though the high bail was intended to discourage others from seeking arrest, it served to prompt yet another string of arrests. By Tuesday night, the CIG-led movement had drawn in white and African American students from other schools: Coppin State, Goucher College, and Johns Hopkins University. A cross-section of the student body normally uninterested in direct action came out to participate: ‘honors students, football players, and large numbers of fraternity and sorority people.’ The 120 new arrests brought the total to 350, resulting in a disruption of ‘the normal operations of the city’s police, court and penal facilities.’ Since city jails were filling up, police were unable to arrest as many demonstrators as they might have otherwise. As the demonstration threatened to flood the municipal court beyond capacity, city and judicial officials grew increasingly apprehensive.
With Judge Finnerty in the hot seat, and Mayor Goodman up for re-election, the demonstrators were putting more than just the management of Northwood Theatre under pressure. Theater, CIG, city, and state representatives met on Wednesday, February 21. Mayor Goodman agreed to mediate. Theater representatives asked that CIG call off the demonstrations immediately, and offered to revisit the topic of integration five weeks later. CIG rejected. On Wednesday evening, while 500 students and some professors picketed in front of Northwood Theater, 74 more students were arrested. The demonstration grew contagious as shopping onlookers connected with the protesters, occasionally dropping their purchases to join the picketers.
Meanwhile, others were paying attention as well. Over the course of the six days, the total numbers picketers involved added up to 1500, and over 400 individuals had been arrested. The sheer size of the demonstration put heavy pressure on adult elements to come to students’ support. While Martin D. Jenkins, president of the college became uncharacteristically outspoken against the demonstrations, select Morgan State College administrators and other adult leadership in Baltimore began to support the student effort. In another show of support, an African American state senator took decided steps to reverse the high bail.
The jail-packing plan, which effectively placed pressure on the city’s administration, had come about mostly by accident. Unable to immediately raise the $90,200 bail, CIG changed their tactic to one of leaving arrested demonstrators in jail. Unfortunately, a lack of communication between jailed demonstrators and the outside threatened the strength of the campaign. Unprepared for conditions in jail, packed many to a cell, and ignorant to the astonishing growth of the demonstration, arrestees suffered dangerously low morale. Many arrived unprepared for the experience, and began to feel alone and used (CIG leaders gave themselves up for arrest in the first and second days of the demonstration, and had since been released). CIG leaders failed to convey to them the proven value of jail packing until Wednesday, at which point 74 women had already signed a bailout list for Thursday.
During the meeting with Mayor Goodman on Wednesday, Morgan State College’s president alluded to the potential participation of an even larger number of the student body, and declared as the only solution a complete withdrawal of charges and the theater’s integration. CIG leaders, made aware of the situation inside jail, prepared for re-arrest that night in order to boost morale and organize from within. However, CIG’s rejection of the theater management’s offer demonstrated their unwillingness to compromise, which further pushed the theater to capitulate.
Simultaneously, pressure on Mayor Goodman came from several avenues. For one, the media was busy spreading highly unfavorable news coverage of Baltimore in the weeks leading up to re-election. Pressure also came from prison officials worrying about a powder keg situation. Other prison inmates grew increasingly resentful of the coddling of students, and had begun to agitate for rights of their own. Unrest grew in the City Jail. On Tuesday inmates threatened a sit-down strike and announced a time for the strike on Thursday. Meanwhile, Northwood Theatre had come under fire from surrounding integrated businesses that had lost customers during the demonstration.
At 1:30pm on Thursday, February 22, Mayor Goodman announced that Northwood Theater would open its doors to African Americans the following day if the demonstrators called off their action. Meanwhile, the President of the jail’s Board of Directors helped CIG eliminate bail. By 4:30pm, the Baltimore Supreme Bench had agreed to drop bail, and demonstrators were released from jail an hour and a half later. Theater management appeared on television to announce integration. Two weeks later, a grand jury dismissed all charges.