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Remembering Jim Crow’s foes

This message came with the endless snow via e-mail.

“During the Blizzard(s) of 2010, I finally got around to reading my autographed copy of ‘Here Lies Jim Crow,’ the writer began, referring to my book on civil rights in Maryland.

“I am glad that my fingers pulled this book from my bookshelf — and during African American History Month at that!”

Here suddenly was my target audience, a fine distillation of the reader I had in mind when I wrote the book. I wanted to honor the anonymous civil rights combatants. And here was someone with a desire to know more about something important to her life.

Valuable lessons

“I never knew the story of George Armwood [lynched in Princess Anne in 1933],” she wrote, “and I never knew anything about [Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor] Theodore McKeldin although I have lived in Maryland most of my life.”

McKeldin was “ahead of his time” on race. The country, of course, was way behind its time. We had chosen to allow discrimination and racism to define us for decades if not centuries.

McKeldin, who called everyone brother and seemed to think of everyone in that spirit, broke from his political predecessors in both parties to make brotherhood a feature of his political life. He appointed blacks to public bodies. He spoke in black churches.

When the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was issued in the middle of a campaign for re-election, he was asked what he would do: I represent the law, he said. The high court had ruled and he would not ignore its ruling.

“I did my serious research and studying at the McKeldin Library at College Park,” she said, “never knowing of the contributions of its namesake to the Civil Rights movement in Maryland. No one ever mentioned him — ever.”

It’s our history

So, do we need Black History Month? We have called it that as a kind of catch-up, but we have never given it the prominence it deserves. At bottom, of course, it’s not just black history, it’s our history, white and black.

“I am a product of Baltimore City Public Schools and Western High,” my correspondent continued, “yet I never really thought about the painful process of public school desegregation because I started kindergarten at a nice, new school in Northwood.”

Some black students walked into then all-white schools to make the new law meaningful. Baltimore desegregated its schools immediately, because city officials like McKeldin thought they should obey the law. Authorities elsewhere were far less compliant, yet Brown was a real setback for Jim Crow.

“I remember the day in March 1981 when the Thurgood Marshall Law Library was dedicated at the University of Maryland Law School. I covered that story for the African American student newspaper at College Park. I attended law school at Howard University many years after Justice Marshall was refused admission at the University of Maryland and many years before Kurt Schmoke was Dean [at Howard Law School]. And, I practiced law in The Law Department at Baltimore’s City Hall.

“In short, my life is an example of the opportunities created as a result of the courageous battles for justice illustrated in ‘Here Lies Jim Crow.’

“… we are not all that far removed from Jim Crow and his supporters. The battle is not over. Your book, as well as “Simple Justice,” by Richard Kluger, have each reminded me that I must speak out about injustice when I see it.

“It was so much more difficult for Carl Murphy [editor of the Afro-American], Charles Hamilton Houston [Howard University Law school dean and Thurgood Marshall’s mentor], Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. [the NAACP’s lobbyist when most of the civil rights era legislation was passed], Lillie Mae Jackson [head of the NAACP in Baltimore for more than 30 years]; Theodore McKeldin, Jack Greenberg [NAACP lawyer], and others.

“They did what had to be done.”

And one more thing, she said:

“The morning after Dr. King was assassinated, I walked to Northwood Elementary with a white classmate. It occurred to me on that day in 1968, my classmate and I were doing exactly what Dr. King would have wanted us to do.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He is the author of “Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland.” His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.