Dr. King's message heard in Baltimore

Ballot box healing: City leaders risked stature to honor "content of character."

January 17, 2000

WHEN THEY chose to back Martin O'Malley for mayor last year, leading African-American politicians in Baltimore honored the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today.

They heard some jeering, some suggestions that they were "pseudo" black people. Another mayoral candidate began urging black people to vote for someone who looked like them. A third suggested black voters should vote black because African-Americans had "come too far to turn back."

This warning was right -- for a different reason. Appeals to racial and ethnic identity are nothing new in American politics, though they can be some of the least attractive. But better - an possible - to appeal on the basis of economic issues, public safety concerns, the quality of education.

The city elections of 1999 -- the last of the 20th century -- suggest that many voters -- particularly black voters -- did precisely that. Surely Dr. King would have seen great progress here.

The central issue -- crime -- transcended race. Voters were challenged to choose a candidate who appealed directly to their deepest concerns: not the color of the candidate's skin, but the lack of safety on the streets, the suffocating drug culture.

Mr. O'Malley, who had forged multiracial coalitions on the City Council, bet his future on the belief that Baltimoreans would choose the best-qualified candidate. If there was political value for him in his alliances with black officials, surely Dr. King would have said, "Of course." Much of the great minister's life was spent looking for government leaders who would join him on the barricades of non-violent opposition to discrimination and racism, much of it then still sanctioned by law.

Black voters, in particular, showed their willingness to judge Mr. O'Malley in the way Dr. King advised, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. His 54 percent primary election majority in a majority black city was, in itself, a healing statement.

The new mayor now assumes responsibility for the city's collective soul, including that segment devoted to racial harmony: between African-Americans and whites, Hispanics, Asians and others.

Throughout last year's mayoral election, candidates were asked how they would try to heal racial division in Baltimore. Often, their answers seemed a bit strained -- in part because they seemed to assign that issue a lower priority. Some might choose to see that choice, too, as a sign of progress - a sign that education, crime and jobs could be assigned higher status.

A good and ambitious politician, Mr. O'Malley knows that he must construct a city government with full participation by African-Americans. The Police Department and the public works department will be led by qualified black professionals. Black political leaders who endorsed the new mayor were, of course, watching over his shoulder -- as they should have been. To the winners go some of the appointments.

Throughout the city, meanwhile, efforts are under way, formally and informally, to achieve better understanding, to deflate stereotypes and reduce suspicion. That part of the project seems infinitely more difficult now than efforts on the political side.

Leaders of Baltimore's Neighborhood Congress believe the key is finding common goals and working toward them together. Others try dialogue, dredging hurt and animosity from deep wells. The results are sometimes frightening to the participants. But society must not shrink from the reality.

On a grander scale, the NAACP, led by Baltimorean Kweisi Mfume, tackles big media, forcing more minority participation in programing.

Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, has urged Americans to make her husband's birthday a day of community service, "performing individual acts of kindness through service to others."

All of these celebratory efforts are productive and good. But it may be that the biggest local civil rights gain of 1999 was the mayoral election. The struggle for understanding, of course, must continue.

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