The new districts: 4th

August 05, 1991

For much of this century, the 4th District, which straddles Baltimore's west side, was a major cultural, political and spiritual center of gravity for the struggle toward black empowerment, locally and nationally.

In the years immediately following World War II, the 4th saw itself transformed into a major staging area for the modern civil rights movement. From there, the legendary Clarence Mitchell Jr. commuted to Washington each day to lobby Congress on behalf of the NAACP. It was also there that Carl Murphy's crusading Afro-American newspaper, then at the height of its influence, had its headquarters. And of course Druid Hill Avenue, which cuts through the middle of the district, was the boyhoodhome of Thurgood Marshall.

Some of the most illustrious family names in Baltimore politics have been associated with the 4th District. For years, politicians named Mitchell, Murphy, Welcome, Adams and Dixon led the struggle for racial equality in a city that, until the mid-1950s, was as rigidly segregated as any Deep South hamlet. Some won national recognition for contributions whose impact extended far beyond the city's borders. The district has been catalyst, a launching pad for more than three generations of black political leadership.

Given this history, one might expect that the 4th today would be one of the most politically dynamic districts of the city. Yet, paradoxically, the opposite is true. In fact, the district has experienced a kind of political implosion in which the grand tradition of activism that found its impetus in the civil rights movement has virtually collapsed in the post-civil rights era, leaving a vacuum that a younger generation of leaders now must strive to fill.

Part of the decline can be attributed to the very successes of the past. The civil rights victories that broke down housing barriers prompted an exodus of the 4th District's black middle class northward and westward along the Liberty Road corridor toward the 5th District and Baltimore County. That movement sapped the district of much of its economic and social vibrancy as well as its political foundation.

Moreover, the influence of the district's political clubs, which historically were associated with the great names of the civil rights era, began to wane as the founding family members succumbed to age and infirmity, and as their descendants suffered humiliating personal and political reverses during the 1980s. The 1987 city elections may well have represented a last hurrah for the traditional hegemony of the Murphys, Mitchells and Welcomes.

Redistricting did nothing to fundamentally alter this picture. Although the City Council redistricting plan approved earlier this year added some white voters in Hunting Ridge, at the district's southeastern corner, and in Hampden to the north, the 4th remains over 80 percent black. And though it still counts many strong, active neighborhood and community associations -- in Edmondson Village, Rosemont, Ashburton -- large parts of the district are politically difuse.

A measure of that alienation may be seen this year in the relatively small field of contenders for City Council seats. Aside from the incumbents -- Lawrence Bell, Sheila Dixon and Agnes Welch -- only three relatively obscure candidates have entered the race in a district that once regularly saw one of the city's liveliest contests. The situation is more remarkable because two of the incumbents, Bell and Dixon, are relatively young, first-term officials who might be expected to draw strong challenges.

The irony of the 4th District is that, despite its national importance as incubator and proving ground for black political leadership, it has precious little to show for its grand legacy. Culturally and economically it retains only a shadow of its former glory. It might even be argued that the pragmatic, "old school" black politicians of East Baltimore won greater tangible benefits for constituents than their more illustrious westside counterparts. That is why redefining the role and goals of political leadership may be the greatest challenge facing 4th District elected officials in the final decade of this century.

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