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Councilman, under fire, is conspicuously absent "Buckwheat" remark sparked controversy.


MARDELA SPRINGS -- Norman Christopher, the town councilman who sparked a monthlong controversy by referring to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as "Buckwheat," was a conspicuous no-show last night as the council received two petitions for his removal.

At the end of a day that also saw 100 people in nearby Salisbury rally against racism, the Mardela Springs council president merely accepted the petitions. Asked what he would do with them, Leland Smith shrugged and said, "We've never gotten one before."

Last night's town meeting was the first since Mr. Christopher made the remark at the end of a routine business session almost a month ago. The crowd of 25 at the town hall was split between those interested in Mr. Christopher and those interested in an application by a resident who wanted to put a mobile home on his lot. The mobile home was approved.

"I expected Mr. Christopher to be here," Mr. Smith said. "I'm very surprised that he's not." Mr. Christopher could not be reached.

Mardella Springs has a population of 360, four of whom are black.

At the Jan. 20 town meeting, Mr. Christopher said he could not reach government workers by phone because it was a holiday.

"I forgot no one was working," he said. "Everyone had Buckwheat's birthday off."

Buckwheat was the screen name of a black child who starred in the "Our Gang" comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.

At yesterday's rally, 100 people, some holding lighted candles, marched several blocks to the city center where speakers denounced Mr. Christopher's remark but urged the audience to look beyond the Mardela Springs incident.

Because of the Presidents Day holiday, downtown Salisbury government offices were closed and there were few pedestrians there.

The meeting came after the Salisbury rally against racism.

Wicomico County NAACP President Warren White, who has been in the forefront of the movement to oust Mr. Christopher, said the rally would begin a "healing of the social disease known as racism."

In a pointed reference to Mr. Christopher's remark and Mr. King's assassination, Mr. White drew applause when he characterized racist actions as petty but often having serious consequences.

A week ago, NAACP leaders had mailed a formal letter as well as signed petitions requesting Mr. Christopher's resignation.

About the same time, copies of petitions bearing 1,500 signatures and calling for Mr. Christopher to step down were presented to Wicomico County officials.

Although he credited Mr. Christopher's remark as the reason for the rally and a similar meeting outside Mardela Springs Jan. 27, Mr. White said efforts to combat racism should be broadened to address other similar tensions in the area.

Last week, up to a third of the students at Salisbury's Parkside High School left classes and returned home after hearing rumors a racial fight was about to erupt. The rumors included allegations that some students, expecting a fight, had brought weapons to school.

School officials said the rumors were unfounded but called a community meeting to discuss ways to relieve tension.

Mr. Christopher's remark has become the slur heard around the world. After it appeared in the Daily Times of Salisbury, news organizations abroad reported the incident.

A day after the slur, Mr. Christopher said he had not intended the comment as "a prejudice thing." He since has refused to speak about it.

Soon after Mr. Christopher's remark made him one of the best-known elected officials on the Eastern Shore, someone spray-painted "Buckwheat is dead" on the small concrete bridge at the end of Mardela Springs. The graffiti has since been covered over with white paint.

The remark has had a crystallizing effect on Lower Eastern Shore communities, has sparked much debate and has been a rallying cry for NAACP membership drives.

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