How Baltimore became a 'city upon a hill'

Sandy M. Shoemaker

February 27, 1992|By Sandy M. Shoemaker

BLACK History Month has focused appropriately enough on the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, with its vivid images of sit-ins, protests and marches by students and other activists.

But while this attention is not misplaced, we must not forget an earlier generation of civil rights workers who paved the way for these activists. As early as the 1930s, black citizens began to organize and devise programs for social change. Baltimore, in particular, became an important center for this emerging movement, and it provided an influential model of racial integration during those early years, the modern equivalent of John Winthrop's 1630 "city upon a hill."

Baltimore was fortunate, for it possessed many characteristics that predisposed it to success in granting civil rights. The city's location in a border state allowed it to escape the extreme segregation of the Deep South. Baltimore also had the advantage of being near the nation's capital, where A. Phillip Randolph and others were working for civil rights.

Baltimore's black population was large enough to be a powerful force, especially after the large urban migration following World War II. And the political situation here was very favorable to minority participation because Baltimore was more open and accessible than other cities. Many liberal white politicians, such as Theodore McKeldin, were sympathetic to black demands and did much to advance the cause of racial justice.

Although these characteristics helped Baltimore achieve a place civil rights history, three institutions in the black community provided the main sources of success: the local chapter of the NAACP, the black church and the Afro-American.

The NAACP chapter, although founded in 1913, had been dormant until Lillie Jackson's election as president in 1935. Ms. Jackson turned the organization around and made it one of the largest and most effective chapters in the country. She took her temperate and yet fervent message of equality and integration to all corners of the city and was accepted by white politicians and black workers alike.

The NAACP's effectiveness, both in Baltimore and nationally, stemmed from its strategy of employing the courts to move toward legal integration. Lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall set precedents case by case without threatening those people with an interest in the status quo. In this way, tangible steps were made to transform society, but the alliance with white liberals DTC remained. The Baltimore NAACP made its most significant headway in suits involving pay equality and desegregation in education and public accommodations.

The bulwark of the NAACP in Baltimore was the black church. Historically one of the strongest institutions in the black community, the church provided a place where blacks could gather on a regular basis to exchange ideas and discuss opinions. From this relatively closed institution came opportunities for developing leadership that were otherwise unavailable. Church doctrine and the Christian ethic provided the theoretical basis for action. Civil rights leaders in Baltimore insisted on adhering to the doctrines of nonviolence, which had their roots in the spiritual commitment of the city's activists.

The Afro-American became a sounding board for discussion in the black community. Blacks looked to its pages for information, while whites used it to monitor opinions among African Americans. The newspaper proved especially adept at manipulating anti-fascist sentiment during World War II in order to build support for removing racial barriers in Baltimore.

These institutions were all the more powerful when working in concert. They supported one another and made possible progress in racial justice and harmony.

Sandy Shoemaker is a senior history major at Goucher College.

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