MARDELA SPRINGS -- Nearly 200 people crowded into a Methodist church on the edge of this Eastern Shore community last night and called for the resignation of a town commissioner who casually referred to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last week as "Buckwheat's birthday."
The off-the-cuff racial slur by Norman Christopher has ignited a weeklong emotional debate in which the councilman was vilified as a bigot, hailed as a spokesman for the working class and chastised as a harmless bumbler.
"How many times did we not know that these people went into their private meetings and told these old monkey and Buckwheat jokes?" George Ames, president of the Dorchester NAACP, asked last night's gathering in the John Wesley United Methodist Church.
"But you see," he added, "you can only do wrong for a little while. You got to go, Mr. Christopher."
Worcester County NAACP president James Purnell said that the reason for last night's meeting, which attracted an almost all black crowd from the lower Eastern Shore to a church with a black congregation, was "sad, just like a funeral."
Mr. Christopher was not present. He made his controversial remark Jan. 20 during a routine meeting of the town government.
He reportedly was explaining to other commission members why he could not reach county workers by telephone Jan. 20, the King holiday. "I forgot no one was working. Everyone had Buckwheat's birthday off," he was quoted as saying in the Daily Times in Salisbury. Buckwheat was the stage name of a black child who starred in the "Our Gang" comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.
Mr. Christopher later told Times reporter Tony Wilbert that he had not intended the comment as "a prejudice thing."
"It's something I heard earlier that I repeated," Mr. Christopher told the reporter, who said the comment was made following a routine meeting during which the town's five commission members discussed removing abandoned vehicles from the streets and area zoning concerns.
After last night's meeting at the church, Mr. Christopher said he did not want to talk about his remark or the controversy it has generated. He refused even to say what he does for a living. "All this has been blown out of proportion. I have no comment," he said.
Mardela Springs, located next to U.S. 50 south of the Nanticoke River, is a community of about 360 residents. It has four black families.
Mr. Purnell questioned at last night's meeting whether Mr. Christopher's comment was an unintentional slip of the tongue or the result of deep-seated prejudice.
"I wonder if this was his first time," the NAACP official said. "I believe snakes are laying in the grass all over this country. Every now and then, one will rise up when he feels comfortable to stick his thorn in our skin. This time, he hit our heart."
Another speaker encouraged the crowd to forgive Mr. Christopher, who he said was "overboard and drowning and crying for help."
Tom Richardson, a white Mardela Springs resident, who described himself as "kind of conservative," warned the people at the meeting against thinking that all white townspeople are prejudiced.
As soon as they learned of the reported slur last week, incensed black leaders on the Eastern Shore said they planned to investigate Mr. Christopher and seek his resignation from office.
After Warren White, president of the Wicomico County NAACP, called for the resignation, an anonymous voice on the phone called Mr. White "Buckwheat" and implied that it would be sensible to drop all efforts to unseat the commissioner. Asked if he considered the call threatening, Mr. White replied: "Oh, yes."
Mr. White said he received other calls from "friendly" local residents who urged him to be wary. They cautioned me to be careful," he said. "They told me we're dealing with some really hard, hard people here."
Mr. Wilbert said he received calls from "three irate people" who suggested that he should not have written about Mr. Christopher. He said one "screaming" caller accused him of being an "outsider" who did not know enough to ignore such racial comments. Mr. Wilbert is from Silver Spring. It was the first time he had covered the Mardela Springs town meeting, he said.
Mardela Springs resident Sharon Mosier said that much of the blame for the controversy should be directed at Mr. Wilbert for writing about Mr. Christopher's remark.
"He doesn't understand our small town here," she said. "The black people here do not take offense. They're just like us, trying to survive day by day." Mrs. Mosier said town residents are throwing their support behind Mr. Christopher who, she said, should not be forced to resign because of "a slip of the tongue."
"Everyone I talk to is supportive of him," she said. If the move to unseat the controversial commissioner gains strength, she said, town voters may start their own petition drive to keep him in office. "We're not a bunch of redneck bigots here," she continued. "If I got mad at every blonde joke I'd heard, I'd be in court all the time," she said. Mrs. Mosier is a blonde.
At the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore, public relations director James Williams said the slur revealed "startling insensitivity" toward blacks and surprised members because similar remarks about Dr. King's birthday are not as commonplace as they once were.
"You'd think any elected official would be smarter than to say something like that," said Mr. Williams.