City, county leaders demand change to address Confederate symbols in Maryland

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Maryland leaders challenge use of Confederate symbols

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called for Maryland to stop issuing specialty license plates with the Confederate flag, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has moved to rename the popular Robert E. Lee Park.

The calls for change came as some South Carolina leaders demanded the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House in Columbia after nine black people were killed last week by a white gunman in a historic African-American church in Charleston.

The killings sparked renewed debate nationwide about the role of Confederate symbols in the modern era.

On Monday, Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, announced it would remove all merchandise bearing the Confederate flag from its stores. A top Republican lawmaker in Mississippi called for the removal of the Confederate flag from its prominent place in the state flag. And the words "Black Lives Matter" were painted on a Confederate memorial in Baltimore's Bolton Hill.

"All of these movements underscore the levels of intense frustration that exist because our country has really not yet fully dealt with our history of slavery and the structural racism that is it's legacy," said Susan Goering, director of the ACLU of Maryland.

While the massacre inside the Charleston church has refocused the debate, Maryland leaders must weigh the decisions to remove historic symbols carefully, said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP.

She said she will meet with state and local leaders to discuss whether to petition the state legislature or governor to recall the Sons of Confederate Veterans license tags that feature an image of the battle flag on the left side.

But some symbols — monuments, for example — have the power to be teaching tools, Hill-Aston said

"Those are conversations that will be taking place a lot across the cities and in churches and with elected officials," Hill-Aston said. "We need our history. We have to learn our history and understand it."

Rawlings-Blake said her mind was made up when it came to the state-issued Confederate tags, first offered in Maryland in 1996. Eight other states offer similar tags.

The plates were controversial from the beginning. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsored the plates, sued to prevent the state from recalling them amid complaints from black political and religious leaders and won in 1997. More than 175 vehicles and motorcycles use them today.

"The mayor finds the Confederate flag to be divisive and offensive," Rawlings-Blake spokesman Howard Libit said. "She believes that it should not be allowed as a symbol on Maryland license plates and should be recalled."

Rawlings-Blake also supported Kamenetz's call for renaming Robert E. Lee Park, named for the Confederate military leader.

The 450-acre park, located off Falls Road just north of the city line, was named for Lee when it was established in 1945. Lee, a distinguished veteran of the Mexican War, moved to Maryland in 1848 to oversee the construction of Fort Carroll.

The county sent a letter Monday to the Rawlings-Blake administration asking the city to let it change the name to Lake Roland Park. The city owns the park, but it's operated by the county.

Kamenetz said he began to investigate changing the name to be more sensitive to the diverse population that uses the park.

"We've been talking for months about a name change that better reflects this unique amenity," Kamenetz said in a statement. "We believe Lake Roland Park is more reflective of this open-space treasure, and we are confident that the city will approve our request, and I expect to make a joint announcement with the city about the name change in the very near future."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he, too, was on board with renaming the park. He believes the first step is to file a bill before the City Council.

"We have to decide what we want to name it," Young said.

Questions about the state offering the Confederate license plates arose following a decision last week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court ruled Thursday that states can restrict the images offered on specialty license plates. The justices decided that the specialty plates offered by the state of Texas — similar to Maryland's — count as government speech, and don't receive the same protection as other speech under the First Amendment.

A spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said the decision gives the state the ability to restrict the language and symbols used on license plates. But, the spokesman said, the ruling and its implications for Maryland's Confederate tags are up to the Motor Vehicle Administration and the legislative branch.

No decision has been made about the tags' future, said Buel Young, a spokesman for the MVA.

Jay Barringer, Maryland division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, defended the tags. He said his group, a registered nonprofit, requires those who request the tag to prove they have a Confederate ancestor.

"We get so tired of being compared to Nazis and skinheads and Klansmen — it's repulsive," Barringer said. "That flag is a soldier's flag. Our ancestors fought with honor, just as the soldiers on the Union side did."

It's unclear what action would be necessary to remove the Confederate tags from the list of those offered by the state, but Rawlings-Blake would "support whatever option would most quickly remove it," Libit said.

"Not only should they not be issued any more, but the ones that have been issued should be recalled," Libit said.

Some Maryland officials were divided on the issue.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen urged the state to stop issuing plates with the tags.

"No state should give false validation to this symbol of a shameful era of institutionalized racism," he said.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called the issue "very complicated." He said he will look to the Hogan administration and the attorney general to decide the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on Maryland's specialty tag program, which features plates from about 900 organizations.

Miller said he believes the state can find a way to recognize history without offending people.

"Maryland is a Southern state and below the Mason-Dixon line," Miller said. "You don't destroy the past, you remember the past, but at the same time you recognize the future."

He pointed to the controversial statue of Roger Taney on the grounds of the State House in Annapolis. Taney was the U.S. chief justice who presided over the Dred Scott decision, which declared that "only white persons" could be citizens of the United States.

Instead of removing the Taney statue, Miller said state leaders opted to build another one "five times as large" for Thurgood Marshall, the Marylander who became the nation's first black Supreme Court justice. They also planted a tree in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., intended to grow tall enough to "dwarf" the Taney statue.

Despite those actions, the Taney statue continues to be criticized.

Colin Byrd, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, released an online petition Sunday to have the statue removed. Byrd said his goal is to unify Marylanders by taking away symbols thatdrive people further apart.

He called the Taney statue a symbol of "racial hatred with no place in our government."

In Baltimore, someone took their distaste for Confederate symbols into their own hands.

A statue honoring Confederate soldiers in Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood was found Monday with the phrase "Black Lives Matter" written on its base in yellow paint. The Maryland Daughters of the Confederacy erected the statue in 1903.

The "Black Lives Matter" message, invoked often during recent protests against police brutality in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, also was spray-painted this week on the stone pedestal of a Confederate statue in Charleston.

Kristen Bowden, 42, who runs "faith formation" programs for the Corpus Christi Church at the intersection near the statue, said her views have evolved on the matter since moving four years ago to Baltimore from Charleston, where she grew up.

Before her move, the Confederate flag was just something she grew up seeing, and it "never really bothered" her, she said. Now, in the wake of the shootings and the nation's broader dialogue about race, she thinks differently.

"Until this, I very clearly saw the flag as a symbol of state rights, because that is what I was taught," she said. "Now I'm able to see past that and see that it's more a symbol of hate."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector and research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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