Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a segregationist presidential candidate, held a rally at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on June 27, 1968. His visit rattled residents and sparked a debate over free speech and inclusivity in the year-old, racially integrated Columbia.
Fred Weaver, one of the first residents of Columbia, described the news of Wallace's rally as a critical testing point for the new city, which was founded and marketed as an idealistic place of diversity during a turbulent decade of the civil rights movement.
"We came here under the auspices of the next America," Weaver said. "At this time, there was rioting in D.C. and Baltimore, Martin Luther King had just been killed. So the more immediate question for everybody was, why is he coming here? And to what extent is the promise of this community real?"
Weaver, who is black, said that Columbia residents worried that talk of integration was a "marketing ploy" by James Rouse, Columbia's founder.
"All we know is that he's a developer with this big dream," Weaver said. "He had these lofty goals and things of this nature, and people bought into it."
Weaver said Rouse's credibility " was on the line."
Three days before Wallace was slated to appear, Columbia residents held a town meeting, arguing for three hours about whether to welcome the divisive candidate, The Baltimore Sun reported. Rouse gave an impassioned speech in favor of letting Wallace speak.
"I am convinced that the fabric of our country is so true that we have the capability of weathering demagogues," Rouse said, according to a story in The Baltimore Sun. "Only through exposure have they been suffocated."
Rouse framed the segregationist's visit as an opportunity to "capitalize on the contrast between Wallace and Columbia," asking the audience: "Might not this be a creative experience for Columbia?"
The 250 Columbia residents at the meeting could not come to a decision, so the invitation, extended by the National Symphony Orchestra, which leased Merriweather for the summer, stood.
Wallace's rally was especially controversial because Columbia had been opened a year earlier as a deliberately integrated community at a time when racial housing discrimination was the norm, according to the Columbia Association website.
For those opposed to his appearance, Wallace's rally was seen as a threat to that goal of integration. If he were to be allowed to speak, Charles Russell said at the meeting, according to The Baltimore Sun, "Negroes will never again feel comfortable about moving to Columbia."
Rather than rescind the invitation, the residents organized a counter-rally, called the "Open City Rally," to be held the same day as Wallace's appearance in Columbia. Its official theme was: "We have a dream — one America."
Weaver served as the counter-rally's emcee as 300 Columbia residents gathered at Slayton House to hear speakers express praise and hope for Columbia's openness.
State Sen. James Clark Jr. spoke first, The Baltimore Sun reported, followed by resident William Ross, an organizer of the counter-rally along with Weaver, who recited Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The civil rights icon had been assassinated only months earlier.
Russell, then a board member of the Wilde Lake Village Association, also spoke, describing Columbia's experience of Wallace's visit as being like "a birth of a child, ejected into a cold, hard, cruel world."
The final speaker was Rouse, who praised Columbia residents for taking "the banner of hope that had been raised for the next America," The Baltimore Sun reported. "You could have yawned, but instead, you have blown the spark of hope into a flame of reality."
Columbia residents and merchants, led by the Rev. John J. Walsh, bought an advertisement in The Baltimore Sun to run the day of Wallace's rally, titled "An open letter to Governor Wallace."
"Although it is our opinion that you and your followers represent everything that the community of Columbia is against, we of Columbia maintain your right to speak in the city of Columbia because we believe in the fundamental right of freedom of speech," the advertisement said, next to an image of Columbia's iconic People Tree sculpture.
According to a Maryland State Police estimation reported by The Baltimore Sun, Wallace's rally drew about 7,500 people, more than six times Columbia's population of 1,200.
Weaver, along with two or three other Columbians, attended Wallace's rally, he said, to "prove a point."
"I'm not gonna be intimidated in our town from going anywhere," Weaver said he thought at the time. "This is my town, and I've become pretty proprietary about the town at this particular point, and I'm going. It was almost like a dare of anybody to touch me."
The Baltimore Sun wrote that the rally, which was heavily rained on, was full of people "stomping and shouting" and waving Confederate flags. But despite being full of "bombasts," as Weaver put it, the rally was relatively peaceful, and nobody challenged Weaver's presence.
"You had these die-hard people, doing their hooting and hollering and stuff," Weaver said. "He was preaching to the choir. Everybody came there because they were fans."
The Wallace fans shouted and stomped and then left. And, Weaver said, Columbia's credibility as a place for "unity, love and growth," as Rouse had put it, remained intact.
"We have a responsibility and the ability in Columbia to be bigger than the world around us," Rouse said as he ended his speech at Slayton House. The residents of Columbia gave him a standing ovation.