Rouse was savvy, but not a saint There is a notion...

Letters to the editor

August 18, 2002

Rouse was savvy, but not a saint

There is a notion floating around Columbia that tends to overwhelm someone who arrives in town. It is the supposed sanctity of Jim Rouse. To celebrate it, the Columbia Association just re-erected a statute of him (and one of his brother). I arrived here only some two years ago, but I have been following public affairs for some 45 years. Based on what I have seen, this notion of sainthood stretches reality, and I do not think Mr. Rouse would have accepted it.

Jim Rouse was not a bad person, better than most, but he was a human being, and was mostly focused like the rest of us on making a living. Now it is true that Columbia benefits from its cultural diversity, and I am happy to have it here. Still, most of the credit does not belong to Jim Rouse but to historical circumstance.

As far back as 1918 the Maryland Court of Appeals said no city or town or county could legally adopt an ordinance preventing people of color from living in some part of it. They did so under the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, and it was exactly the kind of thing the 14th was supposed to do. That left but two legal ways to maintain housing segregation.

As early as 1948 the Supreme Court said no state court could enforce a racially-restrictive land covenant, making such covenants worthless. (The case was Shelley v. Kraemer, and Thurgood Marshall represented one of the petitioners.) That left only one kind of lawful housing discrimination: a private owner simply refusing to sell or rent to a person of color.

In 1966 Maryland witnessed a shameful race for governor. The Democratic candidate, a wealthy roads contractor turned politician named George Mahoney, had as his campaign slogan "Your Home is Your Castle, Protect It." Everyone knew what he meant: As governor, if it passed, he would veto a fair housing bill.

You've never heard of Gov. Mahoney because he lost, to a moderate Republican running with a good deal of support from liberal Democrats. (Name was Agnew - got into some trouble later.)

In 1967, when Columbia began, Maryland was politically ready to have a Fair Housing Law to go with its 1964 Fair Employment Law, and by the end of the 1968 session it did. In any case, the Congress passed one in 1968. Thus ended the last type of lawful housing discrimination.

Also, in June 1967, the Supreme Court struck down state anti-mixed-marriage laws, in a case called Loving v. Virginia. Maryland had repealed its anti-miscegenation statute in April that year.

So in 1967, when Columbia was founded, it was plain that fair housing was following fair employment into the realm of the normative values of America. That doesn't mean everyone was happy to follow it, and black folks buying in white neighborhoods frequently had a tough way to go, as some still do. But Jim Rouse was a lawyer and an astute student of public events. He knew Columbia could not ban mixed couples nor legally be segregated.

Nor could it practically. There were no entrenched white folk in Columbia to make trouble for black folks moving in - there were just a lot of cornfields. He sold the "sizzle" of welcoming mixed marriage and racial diversity without it costing too much. There were plenty of liberals, people of color and mixed couples looking for just such a place, away from the Klansmen and George Mahoney fans in the State. Columbia has since been called the "mixed-marriage capital of the U.S.," by the author of the Boondocks comic strips, who grew up in Columbia.

I don't begrudge Rouse some credit for doing what was right, I just don't think he was a saint. There were folks in Maryland, like Sampson Green, Barbara Mills, Walter Carter, Rev. Vernon Dobson and Rev. Marion Bascomb and many others who got cursed by segregationists, hassled by cops and arrested for fair housing activities and who are much more worthy of sanctification. Let's get real.

A final point: erecting a statue of a saint has the effect of lending the sanctity to the one doing the erecting. So I would urge the Columbia Association not to take Jim Rouse' supposed beatification too seriously.

Fortunately, the CA's new chair, Miles Coffman, seems to be much more aware of his ordinary humanity than his predecessor. There are very few people who really lead saintly lives or deserve adulation and deference.

The rest of us need to keep in mind that we are ordinary, and we need to listen carefully to others, take much of what we hear and read with a grain of salt, and muddle through as best we can. Like Jim Rouse did.

Phil Marcus


Cummings isn't the one needing help

I found Sarah Koenig's parenthetical comment in "Trusted ally drums up support for Townsend" (Aug. 11, 2002), in which she stated, "Townsend, too, is likely helping Cummings with white voters when she appears with him as he campaigns in Howard County, parts of which now make up his congressional district" to be offense and racist not only to Congressman Cummings, but to all Howard County residents.

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