Race, Alaska, atheism, Kent Island

Books of the Region

February 16, 2003|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Barbara Mills lives in Rhode Island now, a thinker's remove from the past half century's strife and change in Maryland. But her home was here, in those times while much of the white population strove, and failed, to go on keeping the black population in subjugation. She was a leader in the group called CORE as, finally, choking on its own venom, segregation died. So long a reign it had had here, so smooth and powerful and unjust; so broad -- segregation in voting, education, commerce, jobs, government, housing, recreation, the professions.

Today's Maryland is no rosebed. But a new era has arrived in the relations between races, classes, generations, even genders. This is a good season for looking back, to explain, to applaud here and regret there, above all to record. Energy still high, Mills has now done this, in Got My Mind Set on Freedom: Maryland's Story of Black-White Activism, 1663-2000 (Heritage, 702 pages, $30.95).

The transformation gained immensely, of course, from being a part of nationwide social and economic advance. In Maryland, a hoary trespass law impeded reform. At some points local events spun crazily, hurtfully. Look at Goucher, more active than Johns Hopkins in the civil rights movement; at off-duty National Guardsmen, in Cambridge, roaming the streets and firing their weapons; at whites in a War Memorial audience throwing tomatoes at the speaker, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan.

Mills' book also honors the heroes: Walter Carter, Sidney Hollander, James Farmer (she ranks him above Martin King), Ben Everinghim, the Jackson-Mitchell family, Bill Moore, Fred Weisgal, Chester Wickwire, Vernon Dobson, Austin Healy, Bob Watts, Clarence Logan, Joe Wase, Walter Lively, Furman Templeton, John Roemer, Ed Chance, Dave Glenn, Michael Cherner, Elsbeth Levy, Mel Sykes, Israel Goldman, and dozens of others. Many have died; some, she was able to interview. Indexed, illustrated, this long, keen-eyed book is not dull. Mills doesn't deal in illusions. Civil rights and civil liberties come and go; drugs and street crime go and come; poverty stays. A generation later, she writes, "Race, indeed, is still an issue."

A rough winter, this, but it's not a patch on 1942, along the Tok Cutoff. There, building the Alcan (Alaska-Canada) Highway, a GI would shave -- in that wet air, a beard could freeze, and the skin under it. Seven Corps of Engineers regiments were turning bogs, glacier ice and first-growth forest into two-lane, gravel road -- "the greatest engineering feat of the Second World War," according to the historian Douglas Brinkley -- and they did it ahead of schedule, in less than a year.

The 97th was fresh from Florida. Alone among four black regiments, it was authorized a photographer: Sgt. (later Lt.) William E. Griggs, of Baltimore then and, at 85, still. Some 100 of his Speed Graphic pictures, with cutlines, make up The World War II Black Regiment That Built the Alaska Military Highway (University Press of Mississippi, 112 pages, $30). The 97th was equipped with its own earthmovers and a sawmill (for corduroy, for bridges, for huts). And amid weather, bears, insects and "a Jim Crow army," it had morale. This is one fine book.

Madalyn Mays Murray (later O'Hair) and her family left metro-area Pittsburgh in 1952, quietly, for Baltimore's Northwood; in 1964, they moved again, to Hawaii, noisily. On arrival here, she was a young, commissioned war veteran, a mother and an aspiring lawyer or social worker; on departure, she had become a vocal atheist and again a mother (each child, out of wedlock).

Meanwhile, her older son, William, had enrolled at Woodbourne Junior High, which meant daily school devotions. After that came Murray vs. Curlett (joined with a Pennsylvania suit), and the 1963 Supreme Court decision outlawing compulsory classroom prayer and Bible-reading, nationally. She proclaimed herself "the most hated woman in America."

In Bryan F. Le Beau's biography, The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair (New York University Press, 296 pages, $29.95), she is shown debating careers and favoring atheism as a good fit with her outlook and her nature: raucous, contentious, domineering -- and bright. (Her own articulate diary is witness.) Settling in Texas, and marrying a second time, she had a career indeed, as "the most famous atheist in America" -- until in 1995, tired, overweight and 77, she overlooked the background of her new office manager.

He was a career thug who soon called in two pals to help kidnap O'Hair, her younger son and her granddaughter, to loot American Atheists' bank accounts and then to murder the captives. It took Texas three years to find the bodies. Texas did not execute the killers.

The life of the No. 1 atheist had long since become a spectacle, one unlikely by now to alter the views of individual partisans, let alone affect the endless wars of religions and irreligion.

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