The Sage in Black and White

Mencken with children of the Johnson family in Booth Street. 1929

The Negro brain, Mencken wrote in 1910, "is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort." This from the same man who probably did more to help black writers—including the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson—get into mainstream print than any other white magazine editor of his day. Mencken wrote blistering attacks on the horror of lynchings, the injustice of segregation, the stupidity of the Ku Klux Klan. And yet, even in his wistful memoir "Happy Days" he drops race bombs: casually implying that it was implausible that a cop could hit "a bad nigger too hard." But then, in 1948, just two weeks before the debilitating stroke that silenced his typewriter, Mencken's final column in The Sun championed the cause of black and white tennis players who had been arrested in Druid Hill Park for playing on segregated courts, calling the park board's ban on interracial play "irrational and nefarious" and lamenting that "the spirit of the Georgia cracker" could be found in Maryland.

All of which leads to this year's Mencken Day Memorial Lecture: "H. L. Mencken: Racist or Civil Rights Champion?" The Sept. 13 talk will be given by Larry Gibson, a law professor at the University Maryland School of Law for four decades and author of the Thurgood Marshall bio, "Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice." Gibson, however, might be best known for his hardball political savvy and leadership role in campaigns—local, national, even international—that have lead him to be dubbed "kingmaker." He masterminded Kurt Schmoke's three mayoral victories in the 1980s and '90s.


City Paper spoke with Gibson about the lecture with hopes of gleaning where he stood on the titular question. Warning, there are NO spoilers ahead. The wily legal eagle rebuffed every cross-examination-like effort to suss out what exactly he's going to say on Sept. 13.

City Paper: How did you get tapped for this lecture?


Larry Gibson: When doing research for my book about Thurgood Marshall I came across some letters between Mencken and Walter White, the head of the NAACP. They didn't relate directly to what I was working on, so I just copied them because I was not aware of this correspondence. And then, when I was talking with Judy Cooper who arranges the programs at the Pratt library, I mentioned the letters to her as I was scheduling my book launch, which was at the end of 2012. She thought that they could be an interesting topic for the Mencken lecture. I told her that after the book came out I would explore this matter further and hopeful there would be enough material to make an interesting lecture. So, I really agreed to do the lecture two years ago and it wasn't until this summer that I delved into the matter with some heft and found Mencken and Thurgood Marshall competing for my time, as I'm working on my next book about Marshall. These are two Baltimoreans: Mencken, regarded by many as having been the most influential private citizen during the 1920s and 1930s, and Thurgood Marshall, considered by many as having been the most influential American lawyer during the 1940s and '50s.

CP: So, what was the gist of those letters?

LG: I will discuss them in the lecture. I explored the topic enough to suggest the title "H.L. Mencken: Racist or Civil Rights Champion?" I will in the lecture articulate my conclusions and be very specific.

CP: Okay, but I was hoping you'd give a tease. What can we expect?

LG: My answer to the question. (Laughs)

CP: Suffice it to say it's a complicated one because Mencken wrote so much and did so much.

LG: Yeah, you are right, and that's what took a fair amount of time. The man was very prolific. He wrote all or part of about 40 books and the estimations as to the number of essays, book reviews, and columns I've heard are between 3,000 and 5,000. And as to the number of letters, everyone seems quite comfortable saying that there were more than 100,000.

CP: Had you read much Mencken prior to discovering those letters and getting this assignment?


LG: No, I had not. I had done much work in the Pratt Library and much of it [in] the African-American Collection. If you know how the building is set up, the African-American Collection and the Mencken Room are not only on the same floor, but their entrances are right next to each other. I knew somewhat about Mencken. It's pretty difficult to be a Baltimorean and be unaware of the prominence that he acquired. But he had not been a person I'd focused on at all.

CP: Well, in the broadest terms, what do you think of him as a writer and thinker?

LG: What I've had to deal with this summer is the sheer quantity. (Laughs) He had strong opinions about many things and he expressed opinions often in an interesting manner. He was just fascinating to read because his command of the language was phenomenal, not just of the current language, but the history of the language. His book about the American language is still the most comprehensive book ever written about the distinctions between the English of England and the American language. He wrote about so many matters—history, about music, about food. A lot of things.

CP: So would you say you admire him, at least as writer?

LG: He is clearly a fascinating person and to think he was doing all his work before there were word processors. Almost all of his writing came out of that house on Hollins Street, pounded out on a small Corona typewriter. I'm still amazed at the quantity and diversity of topics that he wrote about.

CP: Yeah, and his formal education ended after graduating from Poly.


LG: That's right. He was very proud of the fact that he had not gone to college.

CP: Well, some say when you are grappling with whether or not he was a racist, or for that matter, an anti-Semite, it comes down to words versus deeds. He obviously said a lot of negative things about blacks, but he also championed and published black writers. Did you see a divide between what he said and what he did?

LG: I will give my bottom-line conclusion about the question at the lecture and will . . .

CP: You are not going to give me anything, are you?

LG: (Laughs)

CP: If you think of him as a political writer, I don't know where he'd fit today when everyone is either right or left and Mencken really wasn't either. I called him an "elitist libertarian" when I wrote about him once before. How would you describe Mencken's politics?


LG: In my lecture, I deal substantively with my assessment of Mencken but I won't before then.

CP: (Sigh) Okay, well do you have a favorite Mencken essay or book or passage?

LG: Let me see . . . I've enjoyed the letters . . . I've enjoyed the diary. I read Mencken over time . . . I haven't isolated a particular work that stands out for me.

CP: Do you think people should read Mencken today? Is he still relevant?

LG: I'm a history buff and so I think it is always useful to read what important and powerful people said back in their time. I don't know if that's a big observation. I don't know how to answer that question. I would need to deal with what the word "relevant" means. What do you mean by relevant? That you can you learn from it? I have trouble dealing with that question because I have trouble with that word.

CP: I guess some people have drawn parallels between the Roaring Twenties and now, at least before the recession—the idea of a "booboisie," the rampant consumerism, the rise of fundamentalism. Some of Mencken's issues are with us today.


LG: I see what you are saying, yeah. Hmmm . . .

CP: You can read him for the pleasure of his ability with the language but does he have a message for us in the 21st century?

LG: Hmmm . . . It sounds like I'm probably not being helpful to your article. (Laughs)

CP: Yes, I'm still waiting to get you off guard so you can toss me something.

LG: (Laughs) I assure you that in the lecture I will not be evasive on the topic that I have decided to address and I will explain why I arrived at my conclusions.

CP: Did you happen to come across a book called "The Sage in Harlem: H. L. Mencken and the Black Writers of the 20s"?


LG: Oh, yeah. Sure. That's [Charles] Scruggs' book, yes? I am familiar with it. I've looked at every biography of any consequence and most of the books about Mencken. On my Facebook page I put a photo up of me surrounded with some of the Mencken books I have been reading.

CP: As editor he was very encouraging but also told the writers when something wasn't good.

LG: A big part of his work was book reviews. He helped lots of different writers; he was direct and not patronizing to the young writers—and the old writers, black or white. He was a good and honest editor as he saw things.

CP: He seemed to save most of his venom for Anglo-Saxons and Southern whites. Did you run across this, and how does that fit in?

LG: (Laughs) Well, again, you are trying to get into the substance of my talk.

CP: I know. I'm trying to chip away here.


LG: You are not going to succeed, though you may keep trying. (Laughs)

CP: What was it like to have these two different sons of Baltimore—Mencken and Marshall—in your head this summer?

LG: There is so much Mencken material. It's been all over the house and I'm frankly looking forward to getting back to Thurgood Marshall exclusively after Sept. 13. On a Facebook post I wrote: "Thurgood, don't worry. I know you feel neglected by my summer-long fascination with H.L. Mencken. But, I promise to get back to you, right after I give that Mencken Memorial Lecture at Pratt Library on September 13. Besides, you will like my topic 'H.L. Mencken: Racist or Civil Rights Champion?'"

CP: Ever think what would it be like if they met? What would that conversation be like?

LG: Oh, brother, here you go again.

CP: I'm still trying.


LG: You are coming on the 13th, right?

Postscript: Did H.L. and Thurgood ever meet? In a follow-up query with the professor to find out he stonewalled again. What is known is that in 1935 Marshall successfully sued the University of Maryland School of Law, which had tried to deny admittance to a qualified black applicant solely based on his race. Mencken dedicated an entire column to the case, coming down hard on the school's regents and a segregationist position he called "brutal" and "absurd."

Further Reading