Equality's struggles

Baltimoreans reflect on Civil Rights era and their struggles for equality

June 28, 2014|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

This was the promise: No longer would African-Americans be forced to pick up their meals from the back door of restaurants. No longer would they need to fear being unable to find lodgings on their way home from a trip.

And no longer would those who denied them a seat in a theater or on a merry-go-round be able to cloak their prejudice with the law.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, the culmination of decades of struggle for racial equality.

The act, which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national identity, had first been proposed by President John F. Kennedy several months before his assassination. Johnson urged Congress to speed passage of the law, which he said would honor Kennedy "more eloquently" than any "memorial oration or eulogy."

Baltimore native Clarence Mitchell, then the chief lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stands with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., just behind the president, in photos from that day. He pushed so tirelessly for the bill that he was nicknamed the "101st Senator," said his son, Dr. Keiffer Mitchell Sr.

"He traveled throughout the South getting a good view of what needed to be corrected," Mitchell said of his father, who successfully fought to include language that all colleges and universities receiving federal funds must abide by the act.

The passage of the act was a bright spot in that turbulent summer 50 years ago. Three young activists, part of "Freedom Summer," an effort to register African-Americans to vote in Mississippi, were killed by Ku Klux Klan members. Southern whites railed against opening businesses to blacks, sparking conflicts to which local police sometimes turned a blind eye.

The act did not guarantee an end to racial injustice, nor could it bar the hate that lives on in some hearts. It did not undo the horrors inflicted on African-Americans during centuries of slavery and oppression. It did not right the resulting social and economic inequalities.

But it was a seminal piece of legislation. It laid the groundwork for future civil rights laws, including the following year's Voting Rights Act. And it brought hope.

In Maryland, which had slowly begun to integrate years before, consequences of the act's passage were not as dramatic as in some states.

African-Americans had fought to be accepted in professional programs at University of Maryland. They had picketed theaters, conducted sit-ins in restaurants and threatened to cease patronizing shops that would not treat blacks equally. The state passed two laws barring discrimination in public accommodations shortly before the national legislation was approved.

For some Baltimoreans, passage of the act marked a recognition of the value of their struggle. And for some, it was a call to do more, to devote their lives to ending discrimination.

Esther McCready: Setting the foundation

"Let's write to the white nursing schools," 17-year-old Esther McCready said to a friend who shared her dream of becoming a nurse. "You take the first half of the alphabet and I'll take the second half."

It was 1948, and nursing schools were strictly segregated in Baltimore. Provident Hospital, which was run by and for African-Americans, offered the only nursing program for black students.

"It's not that Provident wasn't a good school. I didn't want to have to go there," recalled McCready, now 83.

The Dunbar High School graduate's letters were met with a sheaf of rejections stating that "we do not accept Negroes at this time." Only the University of Maryland sent back an application and catalog.

McCready quickly submitted her application. But the weeks rolled by and the university did not reply.

Then Donald Gaines Murray, a lawyer from the NAACP, gave McCready a call. He understood her predicament — about 15 years earlier he had waged a successful legal battle to become the first African-American to attend Maryland's law school in four decades.

Since then, the law school had admitted several African-Americans, but the other professional programs remained closed to them.

"He said, 'Who put you up to it?'" recalled McCready, explaining that civil rights leaders were surprised that a young woman had made such a bold move on her own.

Murray and two other NAACP attorneys, Charles Hamilton Houston and Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, helped McCready with her legal case. A lower court sided with the university, but she won her case on appeal. A photo of McCready and her attorneys hangs in the Maryland Historical Society.

On the first day of classes, the other students huddled together. No one walked with her as the group toured the hospital. She sat alone at lunch.

The only other African-Americans in the room — cafeteria workers — beamed as they handed McCready her food.

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