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Equality's struggles

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.

Although the other students stayed in dorms, school officials told McCready that there was no room for her, so she commuted from her family's East Baltimore rowhouse. It took several months, and phone calls from the NAACP, before the school offered her a dorm room — a single, so that she would not share a room with a white girl.

"They thought this pressure would affect me, that I wouldn't be able to stand the stress," she said.

But McCready didn't crack. She didn't mind solitude; she had often played alone, enacting scenes with her dolls so quietly that her mother would assume she was outside.

The spirit of her family's home, full of music and warmth, buoyed her. Her father would bake bread early each Sunday, the scent of which she can recall some 70 years later. Her mother told the children there was nothing they could not accomplish.

But there were many struggles. One professor refused to address his lectures to the side of the room in which she sat. Another graded her papers more harshly than those of her classmates.

For the most part, patients, doctors and residents were cordial, McCready said. Her mother, who worked as a housekeeper at a church, once heard a medical student marveling to a priest about the "Negro nursing student who walks with her head high," she recalled.

McCready continued to follow her intellectual and creative passions after graduation. She moved to New York City and became a head nurse at New York Hospital's Cornell Medical Center. She received a master's degree in voice and tutored actress Raven-Symone in her schoolwork during the first two years she appeared on "The Cosby Show."

Her legal victory led to the rest of the university's professional schools admitting African-Americans. In the years that followed, black physicians, pharmacists and dentists graduated from the university. Their actions laid some of the groundwork that would eventually lead to the Civil Rights Act.

McCready, who now lives in Baltimore, says it was "divine inspiration" that led her to apply to University of Maryland.

"I do believe it was a special mission I was called to do," she said.

Robert Houston: Documenting a quest for equality

Robert Houston received his first camera in 1940 when he was 4 years old.

As he grew, he turned the viewfinder on his neighborhood, a section of East Baltimore known as "The Hill," home to African-American professionals who walked to church on Sundays.

One day when Houston was 8, his mother took him to a Howard Street department store.

She asked to try on a hat. The clerk lined the inside with tissue paper before handing it to her. Black people were not allowed to try on clothes at the department stores. The hat could not touch her hair.

"Our eyes met, and I could see the anger, the hurt in her eyes," recalled Houston, now 78. "She turned around, grabbed my hand, and walked me out of the store."

Houston's mother, a maid, and father, a steelworker, labored hard to make a better life for their only child. His grandparents took care of him while his parents worked late. His aunts would walk him the 10 blocks or so to Dunbar, which he attended from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The school closer to his home was not open to blacks.

He studied science at what is now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and met his wife there. The couple moved to Massachusetts when he was drafted into the Army. After his service ended, he worked as a research biologist; she took care of their four children.

Houston followed news of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but at the time he was too focused on his work and family to get involved in activism. Many around him wondered what kind of repercussions the act would bring. "Be careful what you wish for," he recalls them saying.

In 1967, Houston slipped into Boston Gardens with his camera a few hours before Martin Luther King Jr. was to speak. He captured an image of the civil rights leader gazing off, resolute and a little sad, as if glimpsing the future.

Less than a year later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated. Houston picked up his camera and followed the smoke from riots to Boston's Roxbury section.

"I saw the burning, the looting, the blood," he said. "I did not want to participate, but I did have my camera."

Houston documented the grief and betrayal, the sense of hopelessness wrought by King's murder.

The following Monday, he resigned from the lab where he worked and traveled to a New York photo agency. He said he wanted to take photos of the Poor People's Campaign that King had announced before his death. Activists were planning to camp on the mall in Washington.

An executive made some calls and told Houston to go ahead with the project — and he'd be shooting for Life magazine.

Houston pitched his tent with the first residents of Resurrection City. About 3,000 people arrived by bus and caravan. Some rode mules from their homes in the South.

While photographers from around the world stood outside, Houston captured images from the inside. A woman, weary and determined, stands by the entrance to her saffron-colored tent. Two black children cling to a ratty blue-eyed doll. A white woman, on a break from a nearby office, builds a platform with a young black man.

His photos have been compiled in a book, published in textbooks and displayed at several universities.

Police evacuated the area after six weeks and bulldozed the encampment. The economic reforms the protesters demanded were never passed.

But for Houston, Resurrection City marked a new start. He became a full-time photographer, taking pictures for newspapers, wire services and advertising agencies. He and his wife moved back to Baltimore in the early 1970s and live today in the East Baltimore house his parents bought in 1940. Many neighboring houses are now vacant; the remains of a stone house across the street are nearly hidden by ivy.

Houston's photos, along with pictures of the couple's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, decorate the walls of their home.

He thinks often of his time in Resurrection City.

"It was something I had never experienced before and would never experience again," Houston said.

Larry S. Gibson: A 'platform for expression'

For weeks, Southern senators had been conducting a filibuster to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Larry S. Gibson, Howard University's student government president, joined with students from other Washington universities to form D.C. Students for Civil Rights, an offshoot of a national lobbying group.

In late April, on the grounds of the Washington Monument, the students launched their own counter-filibuster. For 10 hours each day for a week, students spoke on topics ranging from the moral imperatives of integration to the social consequences of racial oppression. It rained every day. Few people stopped to listen. But the students continued.

The demonstration was to "provide a platform for the expression of student concern" that all Americans would be treated as equals regardless of "race, creed or color," according to a letter Gibson keeps in a folder in his office in University of Maryland's School of Law, where he has been a professor for 40 years.

"It felt like we were doing something very important," said Gibson, now 72.

He knew well the burn of segregation.

Gibson was one of a small group of black students who attended City College, an "oasis of racial harmony," where he was elected to student government.

As soon as Gibson stepped off campus, the sense of equality disappeared. He couldn't join his classmates to watch a movie at the Senator Theatre, nor could he get a soda or a snack at the drugstore where he caught the streetcar to school each day.

He and his cousin were kicked out of the DeWees Rec Center — just as they were about to win a pingpong tournament — because they were black. Once, when he broke his arm jumping over a hurdle, doctors at nearby Union Memorial refused to treat him. Only after a white coach pleaded on Gibson's behalf would a doctor set the bone.

At Howard, Gibson joined other students in restaurant sit-ins. He organized a campuswide march in September 1963 to mourn the deaths of four girls who had been killed when whites bombed their Birmingham, Ala., church.

But it was the push for the Civil Rights Act in the spring of his senior year that galvanized him. He met Clarence Mitchell for the first time. And, as chairman of the student group, he organized activities with students from seven universities and colleges, most of them white.

"There was broad-based support," he said. "That was heartening."

In the fall of 1964, Gibson began working toward his law degree at Columbia University in New York. Within a few years of graduating, he was appointed an associate deputy attorney general for the Justice Department under President Jimmy Carter.

In his long and varied career, he has spearheaded campaigns at the local, state and federal level, and more, recently, has advised African heads of state. He is also a civil rights scholar and has written a biography of the early life of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who would become the first black Supreme Court justice.

An office at the law school is lined with meticulous piles of documents, charts and maps in preparation for his next book — a look at Marshall's law career from 1937-47. Several years later, he would argue his most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of schools and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act.

Helena Hicks: 'An atmosphere of common goals'

Helena Hicks' twin brother ran down the sidewalk in front of their Presstman Street home, arms stretched out to catch a ball.

Then, with a thump, the 5-year-old ran into a parked car. A white man walked over to the boy and slapped his face.

Later, their father sat the children down for a talk. He explained that some white people did not like them purely because of the color of their skin.

"We knew about segregation because we knew we went to separate schools," recalled Hicks, now 80. "My father had to explain to us the hatred part of it."

It was a shock for Hicks and her siblings, who grew up among African-American doctors, teachers and postal workers in their West Baltimore neighborhood. During World War II, especially, there was a sense of a common bond among all residents, black, Jewish and Chinese-American. Hicks' parents served as air raid wardens, reminding neighbors of all backgrounds to turn off their lights at night.

From Hicks' earliest recollections, her family worked for equality.

Her parents picketed in front of Ford's Theater, where African-Americans could only sit in the balcony. They joined the "Buy Where You Work" campaign, boycotting stores that did not hire blacks. They were also among the first African-Americans to serve as poll judges on election days.

Hicks and her siblings continued their parents' activism. As a teenager, she joined the youth group of the NAACP and knocked on doors to register voters. She and all of her siblings went to college or trade school.

Most of her classmates at Douglass High School shared the same drive, Hicks recalled.

"There was an atmosphere of common goals, and one of them was education," she said. "You didn't think about it — you knew you were going to school."

Hicks enrolled at what is now Morgan State University after graduation and studied social work. The bus stopped about a mile down Cold Spring Lane from the college, forcing students to trek through hostile neighborhoods.

"They didn't want you near their steps, near their hedges," she recalled.

Hicks became more involved in the civil rights movement while at Morgan. She joined sit-ins at the White Coffee Pot and Read's Drug Store chains.

She enrolled in a social work graduate program at Howard University and was one of several students who commuted to classes with Walter P. Carter, who played a key role in the push for civil rights in Baltimore.

"He would stop the car on Route 1 and say, 'Let's go in that restaurant,'" she recalled. "We'd say, 'Walter, you know we can't go in there' and he'd say, 'Well, today we are.'"

Hicks is heartened by the strides this country has made in racial equality in the half-century since the act was passed. But she is troubled by the disparities that persist in income, housing and especially education.

"We have a lopsided education system," she said. "And that's where children learn to live with each other."

Hicks, who went on to receive a doctorate in social work and who worked for the state, said she will never stop advocating for equality.

"I've been involved in it all my life," she said. "It's part of me."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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