'I believe in the law'

Baltimore Glimpses


YOU MAY HAVE SEEN the television show "Separate But Equal," the docudrama based on the struggle of the NAACP, led by Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall, to put an end to segregated public schools in the 1950s. Baltimore was one of the first segregated cities to open all public schools to blacks in 1954, only months after the Supreme Court handed down its famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Any number of factors -- and people -- played a role in Baltimore's quick action. High among them was Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, lawyer, politician, preacher and peacemaker. Would the history of the city -- as it worked its way through this period of extreme stress -- have been the same without him? Doubtful.

McKeldin, twice governor (1951-1959) and twice mayor (1943-1947 and 1963-1967) was a politician extraordinaire. On the campaign trail he could be a waffler, seeming to agree with both sides on an issue (including racial segregation). He was also a frustrated evangelist. He grew up calling blacks, whites, Christians and Jews "my brothers." In any one day he was comfortable presenting a rosary to a Catholic and a Bible to a Protestant, then donning a yarmulke to enter a synagogue.

When the Brown decision was handed down, McKeldin stood up. With words and deeds, he rushed into the forefront of the fray locally and nationally. He called the decision a just one. He called for patience, understanding and, above all, compliance. He vowed that Maryland would set an example for the nation. "Maryland prides itself as being a law-abiding state," he said, "and I am sure our citizens and our officials will accept readily the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of our fundamental law." And when a citizen complained he wanted a governor who "believes in what 90 percent of the people believe in," McKeldin shot back, "I believe in the law!"

A few years earlier he had pressed the city school board to admit blacks to the all-white Poly (even before the Brown edict), and he had urged an end to segregation at Ford's Theater and the Lyric, where blacks could sit only in the rear balcony. He ordered the Maryland National Guard to drop all segregation in its ranks.

But it was as a national symbol of support for desegregation that McKeldin perhaps will be best remembered. He refused to attend a Southern Governors Conference at the time because it became clear to him that the meeting would develop a "state's rights" resolution. (It did, and McKeldin denounced it. "Maryland," he declared, "has become the first Southern state to comply with the new law. I would not taint that record.")

Despite setbacks in Baltimore -- there were protests at Southern High School and at the Northwood Theater -- McKeldin kept up a staccato of optimistic predictions that desegregation in Maryland would end promptly. As it turned out, it took another couple of decades for some Maryland districts to comply, and Baltimore, under orders from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, had to impose two consecutive desegregation plans a full 20 years after the Brown decision. Indeed, 37 years later (and 24 years after McKeldin left public life) a good argument could be made that city schools are separate and unequal.

We need McKeldin in the pulpit.

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