Pride and pressure in Annapolis

April 28, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

LEGISLATORS RHAPSODIZED when 1,000 Morgan State University students arrived in Annapolis for a '60s-style demonstration.

The students had come to lobby for $3.1 million in design money for a new campus library, funds which ultimately were cut from the state's 2003 budget.

Said Del. Tony E. Fulton, who recalled barricading the state Senate building when he was a Morgan student: "It makes you proud of the students and your school."

The demonstrators gathered around the statue of Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice who argued the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case for the NAACP. The past and present of civil rights seemed to merge.

But the most powerful black legislator in Annapolis -- whose power helped to create the Marshall plaza on Lawyer's Mall -- thought many of those involved in the protest hadn't done their homework.

"They're caught up in the past with no knowledge of the present and no vision for the future," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, Morgan State graduate and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The students were being used by the university administration, he said.

"They couldn't win their case on its merits," he said of the university administration. "So they conjured up old issues: historic discrimination and racism."

The students had powerful allies.

"I think it is wonderful, and these kids are expressing their deep-held feelings," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat and 1950 Morgan graduate who said he was among a group of students who came to Annapolis in 1947. "What I advise [Mr. Rawlings] to do is change his mind."

He didn't. The General Assembly gave Morgan $25.1 million in new capital funds, more than it gave any other state college, according to Mr. Rawlings, and postponed the $3.1 million in library planning funds to 2004.

After the protest, Mr. Rawlings and others on his committee were accused of giving Morgan's library money to other schools, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County: to a white school, in other words, Mr. Rawlings said. An odd charge, he thought, since UMBC has many black students and a black president, Freeman A. Hrabowski III.

Protests of this kind are mounted for good reason, Delegate Rawlings said: When the race card is played, many -- blacks and whites -- simply give in. It's too painful to resist even when you're right. So the practice continues even when the targets are black.

Mr. Rawlings sees the library controversy as part of an incomplete transition from street action to a new day in which African-Americans are represented in the give-and-take of decision-making -- but still don't trust the process.

"There've been few African-Americans in my position anywhere in the country," he says. "I'm a fierce advocate for my community's interests. But it's my responsibility to advocate for the committee and to protect the integrity of the committee's decision-making. There's no evidence the process was flawed."

Morgan officials say privately that Mr. Rawlings allowed legislative politics to cloud his vision to deny Morgan its library money to preserve House of Delegates prerogatives. In a sense, that's correct: the House felt it had taken a responsible position and that the Senate caved to the pressure.

Pride or not, it's hard to see how Morgan's interests could have been ignored in the House.

The House subcommittee that first decided to delay the $3.1 million library design money, for example, has a black chairman and a black vice chairman. The full Appropriations Committee has seven African-American members; Mr. Rawlings, its chairman, is African-American.

Mr. Rawlings says Morgan failed to keep its own promises in this matter. The campus' old fine arts building was to be torn down so that final site testing could occur. The design funds were delayed because that work has not been done, though Morgan says it will be done within weeks.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, says Mr. Rawlings has been demonized by people who apparently believe black institutions need not meet the standards set for others. As a kind of ongoing redress of past grievances, she said, some people believe commitments don't always have to be kept. And, she added, black legislators are intimidated by Morgan's backers and don't wish to have their names on the radio as Morgan opponents.

Morgan officials may be rankled because UMBC's Mr. Hrabowski, a skilled player of the political game, managed late in the session to get $18 million of the revenue expected from a cigarette tax increase that could best be used for a policy institute at his campus.

In recent years, Morgan has done well in the competition for state money, though officials insist it still lags behind other universities in the Maryland system. Several years ago, Mr. Rawlings helped to win Morgan new dormitories, and when the University of Maryland, College Park got a new fine arts center, he insisted on parity for Morgan. One of Morgan's dormitories was later named for him.

"Some people want to take my name off the dormitory," he said. "They have a right to take it down. If they do, so be it. We don't make decisions based on flawed demonstrations or race-baiting."

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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