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Tackling Discrimination


No matter what else Baltimore Raven Michael McCrary accomplishes on the football field or in any future career, it's going to be tough to top what he did when he was barely out of diapers.

All little Michael did was make sure private schools, retail stores, swimming pools, hospitals, and virtually every other type of business across America could not discriminate on the basis of race.

Kind of makes sacking New York Giant Kerry Collins pale by comparison, doesn't it?

Of course, in this sweeping civil-rights milestone, Michael did have a bit of help from his parents and his lawyers, not to mention seven Supreme Court justices.

But he is the McCrary in Runyon vs. McCrary, the landmark Supreme Court case decided 25 years ago next month. To mark the occasion, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland will present the Elisabeth Gilman Award to McCrary and his parents, Sandy and Curtis McCrary, tomorrow at its annual awards reception at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. (Michael, in training in Arizona, will not be attending.) The reception begins at 5:30. Tickets are $45.

By their own admission, Sandy and Curtis McCrary were not setting out to make legal history when they filed suit against Russell and Katheryne Runyon, owners of Bobbe's Nursery School in Arlington, Va. "We were just trying to deal with this one unjust situation," says Curtis.

The couple spoke about the case last week in the offices of the family business, All-Star/SSMG, a human resources and information technology company in Silver Spring. Not surprisingly, the shelves of Curtis' office were filled with photographs of a certain large, chiseled man in a No. 99 shirt.

Although the case received heavy media coverage at the time, Sandy says she lost all the old clippings during one of the family's moves. All that remains is a laminated article from Jet magazine. The accompanying photograph pictures the future NFL defensive end perched happily on a tricycle in the foreground, with his parents crouching in the back, Curtis with a sizable Afro and Sandy's long hair falling far below her shoulders. "The Mod Squad," Curtis says with a smile.

In 1973, Curtis was a computer technician and Sandy a secretary at the Naval Air Systems Command, soon to be promoted to the position of equal opportunities specialist.

When their day-care provider informed the McCrarys that she was getting out of the business, Sandy pulled out the Yellow Pages to find a nursery school for 2-year-old Michael. That's how she found Bobbe's, which the Arlington address showed was virtually next door to where Sandy worked. In fact, she later learned, a number of the women in the facility dropped their kids off at Bobbe's. There was a rumor that the school wasn't integrated, but Sandy decided to find out.

The McCrarys were not new to discrimination. They had been turned down for housing. Once, Sandy, who is bi-racial and light-skinned, had arranged for the couple to move into an apartment. When she showed up with Curtis for the first time, the proprietor coincidentally found that the apartment was unavailable after all.

"I'd get angry," Sandy says, "but, you just move on."

So, Sandy was not exactly naive when she called Bobbe's. She asked all the usual parent questions, and saved what she calls "the bonus question" for last. Was the school integrated?

No, was the unequivocal reply.

"Even though you hear it, it's almost as though you have to hear it again, so I said, 'You mean you don't accept black children?' "

Sandy well remembers the reply: "Never have and we never will."

As a matter of fact, the whole purpose for Bobbe's existence was not to be integrated. It was one of hundreds of Southern private schools that opened in the wake of Brown vs. the Board of Education as a way to keep white kids from having to attend school with blacks.

This time, the McCrarys decided not to "move on." "It's different when it happens to you as opposed to your child," Sandy says. "You ask when is it ever going to stop if we don't do something."

When the Runyons rebuffed attempts at mediation, the Mc- Crarys filed a discrimination suit. They were backed financially by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The Runyons also had some powerful allies, including the Southern Independent School Association, the organization representing more than 300 all-white private schools.

The McCrarys won, both in federal district court and the Court of Appeals. That left only the Supreme Court.

The case was argued April 26, 1976. Curtis and Sandy were there. Michael, all of 5, skipped oral arguments in favor of his new day care.

The rest is legal history, and quite momentous at that. The Supreme Court's 7-2 decision was a far-reaching milestone in civil rights, prohibiting discrimination in all contracts, meaning virtually any monied transaction in the United States. It meant no vendors or service providers could discriminate on the basis of race.

"It is an enormously important decision, and probably never more so than today in the fight against consumer racism," says Dwight Sullivan, managing attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

Although civil-rights law until then had addressed public institutions as well as accommodations and restaurants, Runyon was a giant leap into the private sector.

For Sandy, the gratification has been enduring. So inspired was she by the demonstration that the law can be used to effect social change, that she eventually went to law school, and in 1992 was awarded her degree from George Mason University.

At the law school, she studied the very case she was instrumental in originating. "Black law students would come up to me and say, 'Thank you and thank you on behalf of my family.' "

Just as gratifying was driving by the nursery school where Bobbe's Nursery School once stood. The Runyons had been true to their word and sold the school as soon as the decision came down against them. Now, about 15 years after that decision, Sandy "saw children of all colors laughing and having a wonderful time together just as they should."

Michael, now 30, said by telephone that he has no direct memory of the actual events surrounding the case that bears his name. When he got older, he was proud to be connected to such an important case, but also to be the child of parents who made the fight in the first place.

"They stood up for what was right and came out with a very important win for minorities in this country. It's one of the reasons they're both heroes of mine."

For Sandy and Curtis, there was this additional bit of satisfaction: the dissenting opinion in Runyon vs. McCrary was written by Justice Byron White, who had once been an all-American as well as a professional football player.

The NFL Players Association named its most prestigious award in White's honor, the Byron "Whizzer" White Humanitarian Award.

The most recent winner of the award was a certain young man who was once rejected by Bobbe's Nursery School.

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