Maryland prepares to repeal a bad law from the civil rights era

November 30, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,

An effort is under way to repeal a Jim Crow-era law that makes it illegal in Maryland to receive any kind of payment, including bus fare, for participating in a protest against racial discrimination.

The law was aimed at discouraging Freedom Riders from traveling to the state to agitate against segregation and racism during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

As part of a compromise that through the lens of history appears unseemly, lawmakers inserted the provision into an anti-discrimination law after rioting in Cambridge focused national attention on the Eastern Shore town.

Although the law has never been enforced, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, in an opinion this month, concluded that courts would likely find that the 44-year-old statute doesn't pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.

Legislative leaders plan to introduce legislation to repeal the law during the General Assembly session that begins in January, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's office said he would support the bill.

If not for the work of a committee assigned the yeoman's job of reviewing that particular section of the Maryland annotated code, the law might have remained in obscurity.

It takes 30 volumes, each hundreds of pages long, to house the extent of Maryland law, much of it written in antiquated language or rife with conflicts. It's the job of rotating committees, often comprising lawyers from the attorney general's office, attorneys in private practice and community members, to modernize it. The often-tedious job can take years.

"As soon as the committee saw it, almost all of us realized it was problematic," said Bonnie A. Kirkland, an assistant attorney general and chairperson of the review committee. "I was surprised. I just had never run across that provision."

The provision states: "It is unlawful for any person to receive any remuneration of any kind whatsoever for participation in any racial demonstration in the state. Violation of this section is punishable upon conviction by fine not to exceed $1,000 or by imprisonment not to exceed one year."

Veterans of the original freedom rides, who traveled on buses into the segregated South in the early 1960s to test a Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination on interstate public transportation, focused on Route 50 in Maryland and particularly Cambridge, according to the attorney general's opinion. They were protesting segregation in public places.

For much of Cambridge's history, whites lived on one side of Race Street, which ran through the center of town, and blacks lived on the other. Demonstrations began in 1962, and by June 1963, rioting broke out. Gov. J. Millard Tawes imposed martial law on the city after sending in the Maryland National Guard. Eventually, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy summoned the parties to Washington to mediate a desegregation agreement.

The General Assembly passed a law in 1963 barring discrimination on the basis of race, creed or national origin in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations but exempted 11 counties, including all those on the Eastern Shore, according to the opinion. The next year, the legislature amended that law to apply statewide, and opponents succeeded in adding the provision barring payment for participating in demonstrations. Expenses of freedom ride participants were sometimes financed by donations.

Of course, more change has come since then, though some only recently. In Cambridge, voters elected their first black mayor, Victoria Jackson-Stanley, in July.

Henry B. Ford, executive director of the state Human Relations Commission, which handles bias complaints, said he was aware of the provision targeted for repeal because he has read every word of the code that relates to his agency "ad nauseum" over the years. But, he said, he never gave it much thought because he considered it a "throwback to the '60s."

"It's a part of history," he said. "But other than that, it's meaningless."

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