Free courses examine Columbia's history, when it 'found its soul'

Columbia Archives series includes look at segregationist rally in year-old town

September 23, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

As Columbia prepared to celebrate its first birthday in June 1968, a huge challenge to its pioneering spirit loomed.

On the heels of devastating riots in Baltimore following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just two months earlier, word came that segregationist George Wallace would hold a presidential campaign rally at Merriweather Post Pavilion, in the heart of the new city's sparse downtown.

The events leading up to the widely reported story of blacks and whites uniting in opposition to Wallace's visit will comprise the third class in a four-night mini-course on Columbia at the Columbia Archives starting Oct. 4.

The rally had been hastily rescheduled at the closest available venue after being rejected by Baltimore police, who feared that city's wounds were so fresh that they couldn't guarantee public safety if Alabama's former governor appeared at the Civic Center. The pavilion was managed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the time.

"I felt anger and a sense of invasion when I heard about this event," said Fred Weaver, who later helped organize a peaceful counter-rally attended by 300 people.

"I had bought hook, line and sinker into the Columbia concept of 'The Next America,' and there was this alien invading us," said Weaver, 72. "Here was an audience that was hostile to everything the town stood for, and I felt a commitment to protect my community."

Weaver and William H. Ross Sr. will be the series' guest speakers Oct. 20.

"The real story was how Wallace's coming here crystallized what was happening in Columbia," said Ross, another counter-rally organizer who moved his family to Wilde Lake from Catonsville just five months later.

"Most people perceived Columbia as being white upper class then, but many of those who moved in were blacks who were drawn here by a promise of racial equality," said Ross, 81.

The planned community was marketed with a philosophy of open housing, which had just become law in 1967, he said.

"I had told Jim [Rouse] that he needed to make a statement of what Columbia stood for: If you live here, you can work here, and if you work here, you can live here," he said.

"This place was just as much about economic integration as anything else," Weaver agreed. "Columbia was our oasis, even though many people shared the perspective that it was going to fail."

It was during a volatile, three-hour town meeting at Slayton House just three days after the news of Wallace's rally broke that the group of 300 talked about the "meat and guts" of the issue, he said.

Rouse attended and captivated the crowd with an inspirational and eloquent speech that later spurred residents to decide not to protest during Wallace's rally.

"When we heard about Wallace coming here, it was the first time we came together and the first time there was public discourse," he said. "Looking back, it was a time when Columbia initially found its soul."

On June 27, 1968, the day between 6,000 and 7,000 Wallace supporters were anticipated at the pavilion, an open letter from Columbia residents to Wallace was published in Baltimore and Washington newspapers with the headline, "We have a dream — one America."

"Although it is our opinion that you and your followers represent everything that the community of Columbia is against, we of Columbia maintain your right to speak in the city of Columbia because we believe in the fundamental right of freedom of speech," read the paid advertisement, which carried a photo of the town's People Tree.

"We hope that while you and your followers are in Columbia you will be able to sense the spirit of true freedom, of unity of purpose, and of belief in brotherhood that characterize our city," the ad continued.

Later that same day, Slayton House was once again the setting for a formal ceremony dubbed the "Open City Rally," with speeches and singing. Ross read King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

"That night we found an issue around which we all coalesced," Ross said. "But the irony is that it's come full circle, and we're again having that same level of discourse" about national politics.

Weaver said he's thought about where residents were then and now. "People today aren't coming to Columbia for the same reasons, but I still say that coming here was the smartest move I ever made," he said.

The newspaper clippings of the events that Ross and Weaver will discuss — from The Evening Sun to the News American to The Evening Star, all defunct publications — are available for public viewing at the Columbia Archives, director Barbara Kellner said.

"These accounts are wonderful stories of whites supporting blacks, and they portray [the town meeting] as the turning point for Columbia becoming a real community," she said.

The clippings are among the 700 linear feet of personal papers and organizational records, 6,000 visual images and graphic materials, over 300 audio-visual recordings, and numerous books, reports and artifacts belonging to the collection, she said.

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