Board returns King holiday

Schools reverse decision after public outcry

"Sorry for the damage'

Africian-American residents thank members for action.

February 17, 1999|By JACKIE POWDER | JACKIE POWDER,SUN STAFF

In a peace offering to Carroll's African-Americans, a contrite school board yesterday restored the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, reversing a decision that triggered a wave of protest from the county's small minority community.

The action capped a week of public outcry over the board's unanimous vote to keep pupils in school on the King holiday. Scrapping the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader galvanized Carroll's African-Americans and others angered by the decision.

An audience of about 50, mostly African-Americans, listened intently at a special board meeting yesterday as board members apologized for not understanding the significance of the King holiday in the black community.

"Recent discussions have revealed to me that the board's decision insulted and alienated our citizenry," said C. Scott Stone, who introduced the proposal to eliminate the King holiday at last week's board meeting.

"I am sorry for the damage my decision inflicted upon members of our community and I offer my sincerest apologies to all Carroll citizens," Stone said.

Carroll would have been the only Maryland school system to require pupils to attend classes on the King holiday. Teachers and students will have the day off next year.

"I think we've come to a place of understanding with at least a willingness on the part of the board members to listen to the black community," the Rev. Winifred Blagmond, pastor of Strawbridge United Methodist Church in New Windsor, said after the meeting.

"Unfortunately, it took a very negative decision for the board to understand the depth of respect and love the African-American community has for Dr. King," she said. "It's a legacy of celebration and thanksgiving."

The four board members in attendance yesterday voted unanimously to restore the King holiday and Presidents Day, which it also eliminated from the calendar last week. Board member Susan Krebs said she could not attend the meeting because of work obligations.

Many African-American residents of the county thanked the board for listening and responding to their concerns. The action, however, failed to satisfy some critics, who questioned the sincerity of the change and labeled the five-member group as racist and insensitive.

"I just moved to this county, and I have never experienced anything like this in my life," said Maryann Tucker. "Your apologies, I cannot accept them, until you can show me you earned the right to sit on that board."

Some of the harshest criticism was directed toward board President Gary W. Bauer and member Joseph D. Mish.

During an apology, Bauer said the King holiday "is a very, very emotional issue for you people." The comment provoked gasps and heads shaking in disbelief. Bauer immediately apologized, but the damage had been done, and several speakers at the meeting criticized his choice of words.

"The remark about `you people' offended everyone in this room that's of African-American descent," said Blagmond.

Mish told the group he was troubled by the trend toward a multicultural society.

"I see division and an emphasis on the differences and uniqueness of each group," he said. "It is disturbing to me to see America pulling itself apart into separate ethnic enclaves."

He also predicted that in 75 years the King holiday will become as commercial as the holiday recognizing George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

"It may not be unusual to see ads saying, `Dr. King had a dream and so can you on a Posturepedic mattress,' " Mish said.

When Mary Oldewurtel, who ran for a seat on the school board last fall, called for Mish's resignation yesterday, the suggestion was met with loud applause.

"It's appalling," she said. "I am really embarrassed to live in a community that would elect someone who is so bigoted and prejudiced."

Mish denied the accusations.

"If I felt I was a racist and needed sensitivity training, I'd certainly take it," he said after the meeting.

Ochieng K'Olewe, an education professor at Western Maryland College, had a different perspective on Mish's comments.

"I thank God for Mr. Mish," he said. "Maybe we need him up there. We take so many things for granted, it's good to have people who don't espouse our beliefs."

Board members' rationale for removing the King holiday was that students would be better served by going to school on that day and learning about his achievements.

As the public outcry grew over the past week, school officials met with African-Americans to gain a better understanding of the importance of the King holiday. On Monday, about 40 people staged a rally at school offices in Westminster to protest the decision.

Members of Carroll's African-American community have vowed to monitor closely the actions of the school board and to be included in decisions that affect black students.

Kellee Bosley, who plans to attend school board meetings, said the removal of the King holiday brought back painful memories.

"I grew up hearing my parents talk about going to the [segregated] Robert Moton School," Bosley said. "They had to walk miles from Taneytown because the county didn't provide a bus."

Some observers said yesterday that the uproar over the King holiday will lead to a better relationship between African-American residents and the school system.

"It has coalesced our community," said Hal Fox, the Carroll representative with the Maryland State Teachers Association. "The bulk of this county is good and the bulk of this county wants equality in all things."

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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