Solving the 'baffling problem'

November 07, 2008|By C. FRASER SMITH

For those who labored to vanquish Jim Crow, President-elect Barack Obama's accomplishment exceeds their fondest dreams.

If there were any regrets Tuesday night, they involved the memory of colleagues who did not survive long enough to celebrate.

In Maryland, many remembered the Rev. Chester Wickwire, the former Johns Hopkins University chaplain who died several weeks before the nation demonstrated its new thinking in polling booths. The man known to students as "Chet the Jet" inspired them and spoke uncomfortable truths to power.

Iconic fighters from Rosa Parks in Alabama to the NAACP's Lillie May Carroll Jackson and Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore might not have imagined witnessing such dramatic fruit of their labors. Their survivors, black and white, speak for them now with remarks that begin with something like, "I never thought I would see this in my lifetime."

Mr. Obama refers to "the audacity of hope." For the civil rights battalions, hope was often all they had. He stands on the shoulders of many - including many Marylanders.

In the mid-1930s, a Baltimore judge shocked leaders of the early civil rights movement in Maryland by ordering the state to admit a black man, Donald Gaines Murray, to the state's all-white law school.

Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., then a reporter for the Afro American, ran from the courtroom to the newspaper with the news almost as hard to believe then as the election of a black president-elect is now. Mr. Marshall and his mentor, Dean Charles Hamilton Houston of the Howard University Law School, had prevailed over the doctrine of "separate but equal," the state of Maryland and the deeply ingrained forces of segregation.

Mr. Mitchell went on to be the NAACP's Washington lobbyist, presiding for decades over hard-won advances in voting rights and public accommodations.

Progress toward simple justice was agonizingly slow. The old ways receded glacially. Accustomed to that, the Obama phenomenon took us by surprise. The glacial pace became a meteoric pace.

As thrilling as the Murray verdict had been for Mr. Houston, the dean tried to put a brake on celebrating.

"Law suits mean little," he wrote in Crisis, the NAACP magazine, "unless supported by public opinion. Nobody needs to explain to a Negro the difference between the law on books and the law in action."

As rare and encouraging as it was to prevail in court, he was saying, there was a far bigger problem,

"The really baffling problem is how to create the proper kind of public opinion. The truth is there are millions of white people who have no real knowledge of the Negroes' problems and who never give the Negro a serious thought," he wrote.

Mr. Houston's bafflement continued. The Murray case did not register immediately as a significant breakthrough. When the presiding judge, Eugene O'Dunne, retired, former governors, newspapermen and assorted other worthies gathered to celebrate his career. No one mentioned the case that would be seen later as one of the first steps toward demolishing "separate but equal."

Mr. Houston died in 1950, three years before his student, Thurgood Marshall, led the NAACP toward its 1954 victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools and striking a powerful blow at Jim Crow.

Nor did Justice Marshall or Clarence Mitchell survive to see Barack Obama become president-elect.

But their work, and the work of Chester Wickwire, Eugene O'Dunne and so many nameless others, moved the nation toward a solution of the "really baffling problem."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM and the author of "Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland." His column usually appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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