The Marshall legacy

March 31, 2005

THURGOOD MARSHALL was a towering figure in the 20th-century civil rights movement, and a thoughtful advocate for the disenfranchised. That he was born and raised in Baltimore should be a source of pride to all of Maryland. Not only was he the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court, but he is best remembered as the lawyer who repudiated the notion that separate could ever be equal.

Recently, the House of Delegates voted to rename BWI as Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport. This is a new idea. It's safe to assume that most Maryland residents haven't given it much thought. Nor have they been made aware that Mr. Marshall's legacy was inadequately memorialized in his home state. Or even that BWI might be renamed.

Such issues deserve careful consideration. The former Friendship Airport was renamed BWI in 1973 for a reason -- to capture more travelers headed to and from Washington. In 32 years, BWI has built an international brand identity. In aviation circles, marketers will tell you that having a three-letter identity helps -- it's not only the airport's name but also its official ID code.

That doesn't mean BWI shouldn't be renamed, but the implications should be explored at length.

Here's the more difficult question: Is renaming an airport an appropriate honor for Mr. Marshall? Certainly, airports have been renamed for presidents (JFK, Reagan), but it's an honor bestowed on entertainers, too (John Wayne, Bob Hope). Would Mr. Marshall want to be remembered for his distinguished legal career or for easy access to Southwest Airlines, home of "Double Rapid Rewards Credit"?

Statues of Mr. Marshall can be found prominently displayed outside Baltimore's federal courthouse and the State House in Annapolis. The University of Maryland's law library is named after him. Certainly the state could do more. But in considering that, we also ought to ponder the fate of Maryland's Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker and Harriet Tubman -- and the many other African-Americans who deserve greater public attention, too.

Lawmakers ought to study BWI's renaming and develop a consensus view, perhaps even a strategy for the naming of public facilities in general. Certainly, there have been poor choices made in the past. There is no need to be hasty now. Mr. Marshall's legacy deserves more serious deliberations than can be provided in the waning days of a 90-day legislative session.

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