The students were mad. The Annapolis High classroom was full of tense and unbelieving teen-agers the day after four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.
Lt. Gary S. Simpson took one look around and scrapped his lesson plan. Instead, the veteran black Annapolis police officer opened up a frank discussion on race, violence and law enforcement.
He handled it with his usual aplomb, displaying the same grace under pressure that caused him to rise through the ranks and win community recognition. The Black Political Forum, an Annapolis-based coalition of black political leaders, has chosen Simpson as its Man of the Year. He will be honored today during a ceremony celebrating the birthday of Malcolm X.
There's a certain irony not lost on Simpson in receiving an award on the birthday of Malcolm X, the militant black leader who was assassinated in 1965. But although the 45-year-old police officer represents establishment authority, he believes his values and vision aren't that different.
"I'm just really beginning to study Malcolm X," Simpson said. "There has been a new emphasis on his contributions. I do feel that he's probably been very much misunderstood."
The outspoken black leader's appeal continues to grow, especially among young blacks, many of whom were not even born when he was active in the 1950s and '60s. Simpson is older than some of these fans, but he's equally fascinated. Alex Haley's "Autobiography of Malcolm X" is on his reading list.
Simpson believes he shares the strong anti-drug views of Malcolm X, who overcame a drug problem and went on to urge others to stay straight.
An officer with the Annapolis Police Department for 22 years, Simpson helped start the widely praised Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in city schools. He also was instrumental in shaping a back-to-basics foot patrol program to increase police visibility in the community.
"I believe there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon," Simpson said. "I think our young people are a lot more aware today than they were two years ago about the dangers of drugs and the violence associated with drugs."
Others who will be honored at the Malcolm X celebration in Annapolis include Darius Stanton, the city's new drug czar, and George Trotter, vice principal at North County High School.