Free courses examine Columbia's history, when it 'found its soul'

As Columbia prepared to celebrate its first birthday in June 1968, a huge challenge to its pioneering spirit loomed.

On the heels of devastating riots in Baltimore following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just two months earlier, word came that segregationist George Wallace would hold a presidential campaign rally at Merriweather Post Pavilion, in the heart of the new city's sparse downtown.

The events leading up to the widely reported story of blacks and whites uniting in opposition to Wallace's visit will comprise the third class in a four-night mini-course on Columbia at the Columbia Archives starting Oct. 4.

The rally had been hastily rescheduled at the closest available venue after being rejected by Baltimore police, who feared that city's wounds were so fresh that they couldn't guarantee public safety if Alabama's former governor appeared at the Civic Center. The pavilion was managed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the time.

"I felt anger and a sense of invasion when I heard about this event," said Fred Weaver, who later helped organize a peaceful counter-rally attended by 300 people.

"I had bought hook, line and sinker into the Columbia concept of 'The Next America,' and there was this alien invading us," said Weaver, 72. "Here was an audience that was hostile to everything the town stood for, and I felt a commitment to protect my community."

Weaver and William H. Ross Sr. will be the series' guest speakers Oct. 20.

"The real story was how Wallace's coming here crystallized what was happening in Columbia," said Ross, another counter-rally organizer who moved his family to Wilde Lake from Catonsville just five months later.

"Most people perceived Columbia as being white upper class then, but many of those who moved in were blacks who were drawn here by a promise of racial equality," said Ross, 81.

The planned community was marketed with a philosophy of open housing, which had just become law in 1967, he said.

"I had told Jim [Rouse] that he needed to make a statement of what Columbia stood for: If you live here, you can work here, and if you work here, you can live here," he said.

"This place was just as much about economic integration as anything else," Weaver agreed. "Columbia was our oasis, even though many people shared the perspective that it was going to fail."

It was during a volatile, three-hour town meeting at Slayton House just three days after the news of Wallace's rally broke that the group of 300 talked about the "meat and guts" of the issue, he said.

Rouse attended and captivated the crowd with an inspirational and eloquent speech that later spurred residents to decide not to protest during Wallace's rally.

"When we heard about Wallace coming here, it was the first time we came together and the first time there was public discourse," he said. "Looking back, it was a time when Columbia initially found its soul."

On June 27, 1968, the day between 6,000 and 7,000 Wallace supporters were anticipated at the pavilion, an open letter from Columbia residents to Wallace was published in Baltimore and Washington newspapers with the headline, "We have a dream — one America."

"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," read the paid advertisement, which carried a photo of the town's People Tree.

"We hope that while you and your followers are in Columbia you will be able to sense the spirit of true freedom, of unity of purpose, and of belief in brotherhood that characterize our city," the ad continued.

Later that same day, Slayton House was once again the setting for a formal ceremony dubbed the "Open City Rally," with speeches and singing. Ross read King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

"That night we found an issue around which we all coalesced," Ross said. "But the irony is that it's come full circle, and we're again having that same level of discourse" about national politics.

Weaver said he's thought about where residents were then and now. "People today aren't coming to Columbia for the same reasons, but I still say that coming here was the smartest move I ever made," he said.

The newspaper clippings of the events that Ross and Weaver will discuss — from The Evening Sun to the News American to The Evening Star, all defunct publications — are available for public viewing at the Columbia Archives, director Barbara Kellner said.

"These accounts are wonderful stories of whites supporting blacks, and they portray [the town meeting] as the turning point for Columbia becoming a real community," she said.

The clippings are among the 700 linear feet of personal papers and organizational records, 6,000 visual images and graphic materials, over 300 audio-visual recordings, and numerous books, reports and artifacts belonging to the collection, she said.

The mini-course is a way to introduce residents to a free resource they might not know is available to them.

"And if something sparks someone's interest, they can conduct further research here," Kellner said.

Audio recordings and readings from some of the thousands of Rouse's speeches will comprise the first class Oct. 4. The other sessions will cover the myths surrounding Columbia's land acquisition, with the help of recently digitized oral histories recorded by farm owners in the 1980s, and the Rouse Co.'s commitment to incorporating fine arts into its new city.

Free mini-courses

Information from Details are also available at 410-715-3103.

"James Rouse — A Master of Words"

7 p.m., Mon, Oct. 4

James Rouse was an accomplished orator. An examination of his speeches illustrates his use of words and style to inspire and influence.

"Putting Columbia Together"

7 p.m., Oct. 18

Myth and legend surround the story of Columbia's land acquisition. An examination of oral histories of those who sold their land provides first person accounts of the process.

"Freedom of Speech"

7 p.m., Oct. 20

Looking back at George Wallace's appearance at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1968, and Columbia's response to it, provides a glimpse of how a new community handled controversy. Guest speakers include William Ross and Fred Weaver.

"Art in the Community"

7 p.m., Oct. 25

Columbia's rich artistic offerings stem from the early commitment of The Rouse Company to bring art to the community and grew because of the commitment of those who arrived to make it happen. Examine the process and the players with guest speakers.

James Rouse speech excerpt

You are asserting here tonight that the Next America, the one just ahead — like tonight and tomorrow — can be a land where outrageous differences can be managed peacefully. Where people poor and rich, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Black and White, Liberal, Conservative and specialized can find richness and unity in their diversity. Where building a community together is a more demanding but rewarding task than forecasting division and separation. Where hate is truly overcome by love. We are being strengthened by these trying, testing days this week. We are discovering that we are up to it, that we have the character, the competence, the will to bring forth the Next America. We thank you God for the strength and unity and love that George Wallace generates among us in Columbia tonight.

— delivered June 24, 1968 at Slayton House to 300 Columbia residents

Courtesy of the Columbia Archives

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