Annapolis winner of King citation has two-decade history of activism

February 28, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

It's a 1960s story, all right: middle-class white girl from Republican Silver Spring home registers at University of Chicago, breathes the same air as the radical Weathermen, does a few anti-war marches, reads a little Marx. Before long, the world looks different.

"It was really mind-opening for me," says Carol Gerson of Annapolis, honored recently at the fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner for her community activism. "There were always lots of debates late into the night. I found that really exhilarating. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen in Silver Spring."

She uses the term "mind-opening;" she peppers a two-hour conversation with "cool." Clearly, the 1960s placed an irrevocable stamp on her life, not to mention her vocabulary. At 48, the full-time graphic designer has devoted about 20 years to part-time activism: union organizing, tenant grievances and efforts to help the poor and uneducated.

The mother of three who runs her own business in Washington has also found time for politics, running unsuccessfully as a Jesse Jackson delegate in 1984 and 1988. She serves now as treasurer of Friends of Carl O. Snowden, a campaign committee for the Annapolis alderman. Mr. Snowden, a Ward 5 Democrat, is considering his options -- maybe a run for Annapolis mayor, maybe County Council, maybe House of Delegates.

Mr. Snowden also is chairman of the 11-member panel that chose Ms. Gerson and six other people to receive this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Awards. Her political association with Mr. Snowden notwithstanding, Ms. Gerson said, "I was very surprised and honored" by the award.

If the award to Ms. Gerson seems a bit like favoritism, consider that Annapolis is a small town with a small circle of people who have for years shouldered the burden of civil rights activism. Ms. Gerson joined the circle soon after she moved to Annapolis in 1979 and discovered that racism was alive and well in the charming Colonial capital.

She recalls the real estate agent who told her that " 'Hillsmere is a really nice community to raise children. There are a few black people there, but they stay in their place.' "

When she moved to Annapolis, Ms. Gerson was already hooked on activism. While working for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington as an editorial assistant and graphic designer, she helped to organize secretaries in Springfield, Ill.

She and another Annapolis woman joined an effort to uphold a 1990 city ordinance that would withhold liquor licenses from private clubs that discriminate on the basis of race or sex. The ordinance was struck down by a Circuit Court judge in April in an action brought by Lodge 622 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which bars women from joining. That ruling is being appealed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Ms. Gerson and Paula Andersen, an Annapolis lawyer.

Before the Elks suit, Ms. Gerson was appointed to the 13-member city redistricting committee. She made headlines and alienated a few members of the panel in January 1992, when she cast the sole dissenting vote on the proposed plan for new ward lines, and said publicly that the plan -- which raised the number of black voters in two wards while reducing the black population of each of the other six wards -- "would make David Duke happy."

She later tried to soften the blow by saying she did not mean to compare committee members to the ex-Klansman, but the damage was already done, said John Prehn Jr., who served as committee chairman.

"In all frankness, she did infuriate some people that felt they were being cast as racist and biased when they were trying to do the best job for the city," Mr. Prehn said last week. When the committee held a gathering to celebrate the end of the stormy, nine-month process of discussion and hearings, Ms. Gerson didn't show up.

"I still think the [redistricting] plan is unfair," says Ms. Gerson.

As a member of the county's Housing and Community Development Committee, Ms. Gerson helps decide on the annual disbursement of some $450,000 in federal funds. The money has been used in the past to open a homeless shelter and build an elementary school playground.

She remains optimistic that the Clinton administration signals a better time.

"I'm always optimistic," she says. "I always think that things can change."

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