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Advertise on the Tentacle

August 1, 2007

"They don't know what we did"

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Forty years ago local and national newspaper headlines leaped ominously from the page as Cambridge, Maryland, erupted in fire and violence.

The lead article by Frank Megargee in Baltimore's Evening Sun on July 25, 1967, "Rapp (sic) Brown Sought on Charges of Inciting Cambridge Violence."

The article explained to stunned Marylanders that 500 members of the Maryland National Guard were patrolling Cambridge as two blocks of the eastern shore cannery town still smoldered from the fires the proceeding night.

The fires claimed 17 buildings, including 11 businesses and the "segregated and dilapidated Pine Street Elementary School."

For those of us who are students of history, or old enough to remember the dark days of events 40 years ago, we remember the horrific toll racial conflict took on lives, property and the public psyche. Our nation and Maryland tried to come to grip with the deep festering wounds of decades of racial segregation.

This history of racial conflict of a generation ago was on the minds of some as we read recent newspaper accounts of a movement afoot for public discussion about removing the bronze bust of the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney from in front of Frederick City Hall.

Ah - what a difference a generation makes.

To be certain, we must be constantly vigilant against all slights and occurrences of racial injustice and unequal treatment towards any of our citizens. The challenges we face individually and collectively require all hands on deck.

Without and doubt we must respect the feelings of those who are offended by the bust. And hopefully a solution that is best for everyone in the community can be achieved by consensus building and not by the politics of confrontation.

For those who either participated or lived through the strife of the civil rights movement of the 1950's, 60's and early 70's, we can attest that contemporaries of the current strife over the bust might stop and consider the joy that it doesn't have bad breath spewing hatred inches from our noses.

All the while respecting the fact that to some the bust is inherently offensive in that it has a place of honor in front of a civic building, be thankful that it isn't wearing a white sheet with a hidden sawed-off shotgun. It doesn't have a hungry barking German shepherd at its side that is looking longingly at your thigh for its next meal.

In today's sound bite era where history is defined by what happened last week, or last year, it is important that we not forget 40 years ago. It was in "the long, hot summer of 1967 (when there were) fire-bombings, looting and confrontations with police in more than 150 cities and towns, from Hartford to Tampa and Cincinnati to Buffalo," according to a recent National Public Radio article.

It is equally important to remember events 150 years ago when Justice Taney wrote what most of us agree were "degrading, repulsive, and repugnant" words.

Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, on July 28, 1997, of a Cambridge resident, Dwight Cromwell, who lived through the horrible events of July 1967: "As he passes a group of black teenagers in his old neighborhood, he sighs and says, 'They don't know what we did.' "

The recent NPR article reminds us that shortly after the violent Cambridge events, President Lyndon Johnson convened the "National Commission on the Causes of Civil Unrest," known as the Kerner Commission.

The NPR article repeats what has been published in numerous accounts saying that President Johnson believed that outside agitators, such as H. Rap Brown, were "to blame for the rioting and arson that engulfed so many cities and towns like Cambridge."

"But the Kerner Commission dismissed that notion. and found that, contrary to popular belief, blame for the events of July 24, 1967, could not be pinned on H. Rap Brown. the cause of the unrest lay in years of systematic discrimination against the black population of Cambridge."

To be sure, many historians believe that both President Johnson and the Kerner Commission were correct.

Fast-forwarding to July 2007, both sides in the debate over whether or not to move the Justice Taney bust are correct. But let's never forget that the otherwise mute sculpture is not the cause of whatever strife to which it is attributed in Frederick today.

The challenge remains that much work remains to be done in order to make certain everyone has equal access to the great American dream. Unfortunately the bust stands as a stark reminder of when unequal access to a good job, restaurants, fair housing, and quality of life was government sanctioned.

To that end it should very well be moved. But moving the bust, although perhaps prudent and thoughtful, will not remove the challenges we continue to face in our society today. Perhaps that is where our efforts ought to be placed so that we may someday recognize that the words of H. Rap Brown and Justice Taney are yesterday's history which we cannot change now - but we can work hard to overcome today.

Today, H. Rap Brown is once again in prison for another violent act on March 16, 2000, and Justice Taney is an enigmatic mute stone-cold statue.

Decide what you want to do with the bust, but understand that at the end of the day, there will be no winners and no losers. It will be yet another confusing and conflicted footnote in history.

Nevertheless, please keep things in perspective for those who "know what we did," in the 1960s in the hot sweltering south. Years later we are still afraid of German shepherds and are thankful that the bust - as offensive as it is - is a part of history and neither Justice Taney nor Rap Brown can physically hurt us any longer.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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