By quiet deeds, Merlan Banks forces change 40 years of effort against racism Heritage of Honor -- A celebration of Black History Month

February 15, 1993|By Andrea Siegel | Andrea Siegel,Staff Writer

Merlan C. E. Banks didn't want his three children to grow up suffering the indignities of racial intolerance that he endured.

"I just had to get involved, honey," says the Annapolis man with 40 years of activism behind him. "If you want things to change, you've got to get involved."

So he did -- in the 1940s before he thought about children, in the '50s when he had his children, in the '60s as they were in school, in the '70s as they were graduating, and beyond.

"You always want to improve the community and make it better for your children," says the Bestgate neighborhood resident, recipient of the 1993 county NAACP's Morris H. Blum Humanitarian Award.

He didn't do it in ways that made a big name for himself.

"His contributions have been that he is a behind-the-scenes person," says Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden. He says Mr. Banks' quiet ways of moving to right a system he believed was doing wrong reminded him of a religious theme: "His deeds speak for him," Mr. Snowden says.

"He isn't the boastful type," says Everett Pettigrew, who has known Mr. Banks for more than a decade through the Annapolis chapter of Frontiers International, a service organization of which Mr. Banks is a former president. "He is not someone who makes a lot of noise about what he is doing. He just does it."

"He's always a part of something," says the Rev. Charles Creek, retired pastor of Fowlers United Methodist Church, who has known Mr. Banks for more than 25 years.

"He is a joiner, not because of what he can get out of it, but because of what he can do for others," Mr. Creek said.

His activism goes to the heart of the days when bathrooms were segregated, when integrated schools were a dream -- or nightmare -- to people, when blacks sat in the back of the bus if they were allowed to board it at all.

In the 1940s in his native western Virginia, he was a soda jerk who got fired for trying to desegregate the lunch counter.

In the '50s, he and two white Army buddies created an uproar when they insisted on getting served at a Laurel restaurant.

The 63-year-old retired letter carrier marched in peaceful protests of the '60s -- as, he says, "part of the movement." As a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Anne Arundel County, he was among a group of black men who tried to enter an Annapolis restaurant only to be told, "We don't serve colored people."

The men left, picketed and got hosed. But they did dry off. The restaurant closed for good rather than desegregate.

Meanwhile, starting in the late 1950s, he didn't want his children to attend Anne Arundel County's segregated public schools, so he fought to not have them attend Parole Elementary -- the nearest black school -- but West Annapolis Elementary, the nearest school, which was all white.

For 17 years, Mr. Banks said, he got permission from the county school system, largely by offering to get a lawyer if he didn't get his way.

Mr. Banks didn't talk much about his civil rights activism to his children, says his younger daughter Sheryl. But, she says, something must have rubbed off: She is the chairperson of the Black Political Forum of Anne Arundel County.

"I'm not a leader," Mr. Banks says. But his actions suggest other wise. He has pitched in by serving as the president of the county's Community Action Agency, as vice president of the NAACP of Anne Arundel County, as president of the Bestgate Civic Association, on the board of the Banneker-Douglass Museum Foundation Inc., and in other organizations.

He works tending bar at the American Legion Cook-Pinkney Post No. 141 in Annapolis, where he also is the service officer, helping veterans and their survivors negotiate the maze of federal benefits.

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