Over the years, people have referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as Negro, colored, Afro-American and black.
"None of those terms appropriately described him," Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, told colleagues yesterday on the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.
Rawlings wants the state to refer to people of African descent as African-Americans, rather than as blacks or Afro-Americans, in laws and regulations.
At a hearing on his bill to change the references, Rawlings said the term "African-American" best describes people of African ancestry because it refers to their geographical and cultural roots.
The word "black," he said, conjures up negative synonyms, including "wicked" and "gloomy."
The other common term, "Afro-American," is just plain confusing.
"What's an Afro?" he asked before the hearing.
Other groups commonly refer to their geographical roots, he said, giving rise to terms such as Asian-American, Irish-American and Italian-American.
Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and civil rights activist, said he also prefers African-American because it asserts his culture and roots.
But some are happy to use black or African-American.
"We use those terms interchangeably," said Jim Williams, public relations director at the national headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore. Williams was contacted after the hearing.
The bill would mandate the use of African-American in future laws and regulations.
It also states a preference for African-American in other Maryland documents.
A few white delegates asked Rawlings, who is black, if the bill would offend blacks who identify with Caribbean countries or specific parts of Africa.
Rawlings, who is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said African-American encompasses all those groups.
The laws referring to them, such as procurement and employment practices rules, would not need to draw distinctions among African-Americans, he said.
If enacted, he added, the bill would cost nothing, an important issue with legislators battling a $1.2 billion deficit.
Some day, Rawlings said, bills with racial references may not be necessary.
"We hope that one day we'll all be called Americans," he said.