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My First Arrest, Plus 50 Years

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Message Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Sunday , July 7, 1963, was the date of my first arrest, among protesters creating a "walk-in" aimed at ending racial segregation at Gwynn Oak amusement park in Baltimore. This coming  July 7, 2013   (also a  Sunday ) there will be a 50th-anniversary celebration in Baltimore of the desegregation of the park, which followed soon after the arrests.

The celebration will begin at  1 pm  at 5900 Gwynn Oak Ave, zip 21207  -- the site of the amusement park, which has not operated for years.  But if you have ridden the merry-go-round on the Mall in Washington, you've shared a relic of Gwynn Oak! (See below for a flyer with more information. The music begins at  1 pm ; the formal program, at  2:15 .  I'll be there, and I'll be speaking. If you are within reaching distance of Baltimore, please come!) 

 The wave of public insistence on desegregation was moved partly by this photo that appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Sun, showing one of us -- Allison Turaj -- bleeding heavily from a cut on her face, with bloodstains on her dress,  from a rock thrown by a pro-segregation mob who were already -- to our surprise -- inside the park..

(Image by Rabbi Arthur Waskow)   Details   DMCA

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Others in the photo include (to Allison's right) Carol Cohen McEldowney, whose memory is a blessing; to her right, Todd Gitlin, now a well-known sociologist; and to Allison's left, me. I am carrying my shoes because we had to cross a stream to actually enter the park the back way, rather than be ritually arrested at the front entrance. As you can see in the photo, we are under arrest -- and the police who arrested us probably saved our lives from the mob of segregationists.

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?

 At  11 o'clock  on the morning of  Sunday , July 7, 1963, I wrote the last paragraph of the last chapter of a scholarly study of a series of race riots that swept across the United States in 1919. At  5:30  that afternoon, I joined several men and women, white and Negro, to enter a Baltimore amusement park, Gwynn Oak, which had forbidden Negroes to attend.

By  5:40 , one of my companions had been badly hurt by a thrown rock, and all of us had been surrounded by a raging mob that, as I could recognize from my study of the 1919 riots, was whipping itself up to the point of assault and murder.


After the police had reached us and arrested us, our march to the paddy wagon brought us past some of the same cotton candy stands and thrill rides that I could remember from fifteen years ago. "  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.


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.

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph. D., founded (in 1983) and directs The Shalom Center , a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life that brings Jewish and other spiritual thought and practice to bear on seeking peace, pursuing justice, (more...)
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