Worcester takes 'race' out of election


May 10, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

POCOMOKE CITY — Yesterday's Q&A column with Saunders Marshall Jr., a Worcester County voting-rights activist, was incorrectly accompanied by a photograph of Honiss W. Kane Jr., a Pocomoke City town councilman and colleague of Mr. Marshall's. Mr. Marshall's photo is shown here.

The Sun regrets the errors.

POCOMOKE CITY -- Saunders Marshall Jr. was 8 and living in Worcester County in 1933 when a mob of angry whites stormed a jail in neighboring Somerset County and lynched a black man from a tree.

"The main thing I remember about that is we were told to stay off the streets," he says. "The word was just passed around -- all blacks better stay in their houses because they're having a lynching. If you wanted to stay out of trouble, you better stay out of the way."


Growing up black in parts of Maryland back then, Mr. Marshall says, meant taking for granted your lot as a second-class citizen. It wasn't until he served abroad with the U.S. Army during World War II and saw that most Europeans welcomed black and white GIs equally that he fully realized how differently blacks were treated back home on the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Marshall, a retired state vocational teacher and current president of the Worcester County Voter Rights Coalition, signed on last year as a plaintiff in a benchmark lawsuit against the county, claiming that Worcester's election system made it nearly impossible for black candidates to win a seat on the five-member commission.

Blacks -- about 21 percent of Worcester's 35,000 residents -- have lived in the area since before the county was formed in 1742. Yet no black has ever won a contested countywide election.

On April 5, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Joseph H. Young ordered Worcester County to replace its election system with cumulative voting, a rarely used process that gives each voter five ballots. All voters, regardless of race, can use the votes in a number of combinations, including giving a single vote to five different candidates or all five to one candidate. County commissioners say they'll appeal.

Q: Almost three weeks after Judge Young's ruling, the Voter Rights Coalition and the NAACP conducted a funeral service for the county's old election system. What was the purpose behind that?

A: In the black community, word can pass around quickly about a funeral. I don't know how we do it, but if somebody's dead, boy, we hear about it. That's what was behind the service, to let them know that this thing is dead. We had 70 or 80 people there. It was a small church, so that wasn't bad.

Q: Plaintiffs in the voting rights case offered Judge Young two alternative election systems, an odd-shaped minority district that ran through the center of the county and the cumulative voting method. Did you personally favor one over the other?

A: I personally prefer cumulative voting over a minority district. But I also realize it puts more of a responsibility on all of us.

If we want to be first-class citizens, we've got to take that responsibility. Cumulative voting means cumulative interests. If you find someone who has the same interest as you and that person is a candidate, all people who have that interest should stick together and put that person in.

As a tactic, we thought cumulative voting was a better choice, too. With the county's complaints they made about the minority district -- like dividing up the towns -- they couldn't make that complaint about cumulative voting.

Q: You saw weaknesses in the minority district plan, too, aside from guessing that the commissioners would attack it outright?

A: Sure. Those blacks who didn't live within the district would have been left out.

Q: One criticism of the old system is that whites voted along racial lines and kept blacks out of office. Under the new system, won't blacks will have to do the same thing to get a candidate into office?

A: That's not necessarily true. One thing we're hearing right now -- I was talking to my white friends right here in Pocomoke -- is that a lot of whites are thinking that in order for them to have a representative from this part of the county, they need to go along with us.

Q: Then you don't see cumulative voting as a temporary fix designed to benefit just blacks?

A: No. I see it as the thing that more and more places will take advantage of. It's the fairest way to have an election. It might be temporary as far as race relations are concerned, but as we get into it and get to know it better, other areas of interests will take over.

Even the black community has to establish coalitions with other groups of common interests regardless of race. It might be that some blacks will be leaving and going with some other interests.

Q: From the beginning of the court battle, the all-white county commission has denied that their opposition to changing the election system had racial overtones. What's your perception of their motives?

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