A day to remember

editorial notebook

January 17, 2009|By Larry Williams

There are days when the currents of history flow together to illuminate a particular place or time. So it is here in Baltimore where President-elect Barack Obama will pause today to speak on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend as he travels to Washington.

Mr. Obama's trip by rail from Philadelphia to his inauguration Tuesday is intended to evoke memories of Abraham Lincoln's inaugural journey, and Baltimore is rich with the ghosts of people who played significant roles in the long struggle of African-Americans , a journey in which his election represents an important milestone.

Frederick Douglass moved to Baltimore from Maryland's Eastern Shore as an 8-year-old boy in 1826. Born into slavery, Douglass taught himself and others how to read and write, though doing so was against state law. His convictions propelled him to become a famous abolitionist, publisher, writer, orator and American thinker.

By the middle of the 19th century, Maryland, like the nation, was torn apart by the issue of slavery. Harriet Tubman, an escaped Eastern Shore slave, returned repeatedly to guide dozens of others to freedom in the North.

Maryland was an early problem for Lincoln after he became president in 1861. He seized control of the state after anti-Union rioting in Baltimore and the burning of bridges. But by February 1865, as the Civil War neared its end, the state legislature was one of the first to ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and outlaw slavery.

Still, in the decades that followed, race relations in Maryland remained uneasy as the institution of segregation blocked the economic and social advancement of African-Americans.

Then, in 1932, Carl Murphy, publisher of The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, declared the NAACP's intention to challenge racial segregation at the University of Maryland. By 1935, with the help of NAACP attorneys Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP forced open the university's law school, with a strategy that would be used successfully across the Jim Crow South.

Mr. Marshall was born in Baltimore, the great-grandson of slaves, and as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he led the legal team that won Brown v. Board of Education. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court case marked the end of segregation in America's schools. In 1967, he became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

In 1963, Mr. Murphy was deeply involved in the organization of Dr. King's "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," highlighted by his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Now Mr. Obama will speak in a city that has evolved from a community that mocked Abraham Lincoln to one whose citizens cheered Martin Luther King, fought racism and honored equality. That's a memory worth contemplating in this still imperfect world.

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