Marylanders helped pave the way for Obama's journey

August 31, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

DENVER - Sen. Barack Obama is the Democratic Party's presidential nominee by virtue of his own talent, but he stands on the shoulders of Americans who built, over many decades, a more welcoming social and political landscape in this country.

At a party before Mr. Obama's acceptance speech, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, observed that Americans have just seen a presidential primary campaign that, for the first time, featured a black man and a woman who each had a serious chance of winning. And just two years ago, he pointed out, a woman, Nancy Pelosi, became speaker of the House. That seems like fast progress. But in the matter of race, in particular, progress has been slow. And some of the most incandescent of transformational leaders were Marylanders.

The Eastern Shore's Harriet Tubman, quoted at the Democratic Convention here by Sen. Hillary Clinton, counseled those she led to freedom to keep on going. That's what black Americans have done despite decades of abuse, some of it murderous. Somehow the dream did not die.

Strides were made, however small. They were as momentous and difficult to imagine in their time as a black man's grasping the banner of a major political party had been until recently.

Marylander Frederick Douglass became something of a philosopher of the movement for black civil rights. Among his oft-repeated dictums: Power concedes nothing without a struggle.

At the same time, he believed power centers would act in their best interest. He urged Abraham Lincoln to accelerate the recruitment of black soldiers, hoping that America would repay the sacrifice with help for newly freed slaves.

Just as America had given blacks the bullet to save itself, he wrote, it would give blacks the vote - also to save itself. The vote came, but so did Jim Crow and a devilish system of discrimination.

A black Maryland lawyer, W. Ashbie Hawkins, fought against what the Maryland legal historian Garrett Power called "apartheid Baltimore style." His work led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a system of housing discrimination that had been copied by a number of other U.S. cities.

Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall, architect of Brown v. Board of Education, believed the courts were an irresistible force for freedom in a nation of laws. Judge Eugene O'Dunne, a white judge, agreed with Mr. Marshall in a Baltimore courtroom, allowing another step in the long march toward Brown and the end of Jim Crow.

But Mr. Marshall's mentor and co-counsel, Howard University Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, said changing the law was only part of the battle - the easy part, in fact. "The really baffling problem is how to create the proper kind of public opinion," he said.

The Marylanders whose shoulders were used by Mr. Obama included many who simply believed that a day like Wednesday - when Mr. Obama became his party's presidential candidate - would come. That day did not arrive by faith alone. There was the irresistible force of Lillie May Jackson, head of the NAACP in Baltimore for years. Some thought of her as a screamer, but they respected her courage. They knew she had few tools to work with.

And there was her son-in-law, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., lobbyist for the NAACP in Washington, whose quiet charisma and institutional knowledge moved major legislation to passage. President Lyndon Johnson called him the 101st senator.

A Baltimore mayor and later governor of Maryland, Theodore R. McKeldin, called everyone, black or white, "my brother" and seemed to mean it. As a supporter of fairness, he developed a national profile. He was, as they say, ahead of his time.

Each one of these brave witnesses for fairness and decency - and so many others, black and white - might take a bow wherever they are for the history made by Barack Obama.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His new book is "Here Lives Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland." His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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