Two old friends share stories of erasing racial lines in Baltimore

Larry Gibson well remembers when there were two distinct Baltimores, one white, one black, with little overlap.

The races ate in different restaurants, watched movies at different theaters, attended different schools. Even at one of his first jobs, as a pinsetter at a local bowling alley, that separation was always in evidence.

“I could set the pins, but I couldn’t bowl,” Gibson, an attorney, political strategist and law professor, told an audience at Beth Am Synagogue Sunday afternoon. “I never set pins in a bowling alley in which I could bowl as a customer.”

Gibson and people like him are the reason times have changed. Appearing at Beth Am as part of the Reservoir Hill synagogue’s annual “Sages for the Ages” series, he talked about those years, especially his half-century as a political strategist and teacher, during an interview conducted by attorney and sports agent Ron Shapiro, a friend of more than 50 years.

“It’s such an example of the legacy of a special relationship,” said Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am. “They are two extraordinary individuals, and when you put two extraordinary individuals together over the course of five decades, you get an experience like we all had today.

“The opportunity to sit at the feet of brilliant people, whatever their background, and learn from them is something that we take a lot of pleasure in.”

Much of the conversation was humorous. Gibson, 75, would reproach Shapiro, 74, for being more shocked and offended by what happened to Gibson than Gibson was. He would talk about how, as each barrier was breached and the possibilities for a young black man expanded, his eyes were opened to parts of Baltimore he hadn’t known existed.

For instance: “When I first saw this rye [bread] and this pumpernickel,” Gibson said, “I thought it was burned.”

But much of their conversation was serious. Not heavy, perhaps — these two men, longtime key figures on the city’s political and civic scene, clearly know each other too well and laugh with each other too easily for that. But the stories Shapiro would prompt Gibson to tell were reminders of both how far the city has progressed in their lifetimes, and how far it still has to go.

Gibson was asked for some “sage advice.”

“The key,” he said, “is having some sort of a destination” in mind.

Half a century ago, Gibson and Shapiro were a pair of twentysomething law-school grads clerking for U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman — Gibson was the first African-American district court clerk south of the Mason-Dixon line — and studying to pass the bar.

They met in 1967, the year Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court justice. The following year, 1968, would be one of the most tumultuous in American history, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In Baltimore, rioting after King‘s death left six people dead, 5,800 arrested and an estimated $13.5 million in property damage.

Little wonder that Gibson decided he had to be in on the fight to change things.

“I became a warrior,” he said, “in the same year that Thurgood Marshall was named to the Supreme Court.”

By that time, Gibson was already a veteran of civil rights protests. As a high-schooler, he told the roughly 200 people in the audience Sunday, he was among a group who went to the old Oriole cafeteria, determined to defy its whites-only policy. They were caught off guard when the cashier simply let them purchase their food without incident.

“You know you don’t serve black people,” he remembered thinking. “What are you trying to pull off?”

(Sure enough, Gibson said, the establishment went right back to not serving African-Americans the following day.)

On graduating from Columbia Law School, Gibson had no intention of returning to Baltimore. But he reconsidered, and before long, he was making a difference — often working alongside his friend, Shapiro.

“All of those campaigns he is talking about,” Gibson said, gesturing toward Shapiro, “we did together.”

It would prove quite a list. Taking part in some of the country’s earliest fair-housing litigation, brought after city legislators outlawed the practice. Getting Kurt L. Schmoke elected as the city’s first black state’s attorney, later its first elected black mayor (Gibson served as campaign manager, Shapiro as treasurer). Even taking on campaigns overseas, in Madagascar and Liberia (where he helped make Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the first elected female head of state in Africa).

Both Gibson and Shapiro have put the years since they met to good use. Gibson has consulted on many successful election campaigns — he led Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign in Maryland — and has taught law for for more than 40 years, most recently at the University of Maryland. He has written two books on the life of Thurgood Marshall.

Shapiro, who founded the firm of Shapiro Sher (both he and Gibson are members), earned a national reputation as a sports agent and negotiator; his clients have included baseball Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray and Kirby Puckett. He is the author of four books, including “The Power of Nice: How To Negotiate So Everyone Wins – Especially You!"

Throughout his career, Gibson said, he had a goal in mind — a mission he decided on in 1972. For years, he had set his mind on being a “just and learned person.” But that was the year, Gibson said, he set a goal outside himself, a “statement of purpose. … Once I had that, that affected other things.”

Gibson’s goal: “to help other just and learned people succeed.”

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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