THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS ago yesterday, militant activist H. Rap Brown gave his infamous speech urging Cambridge blacks to riot against their oppressors. "I don't care if you have to burn him down and run him out," he said. "You'd better take over them stores. The streets are yours. Take 'em." The incident followed four years of racial violence and unrest in the Eastern Shore town. When fires erupted in the city's black neighborhoods during that hot July of 1967, white firemen refused to enter -- at least not without police escort.
During that fiery summer, Cambridge became a national symbol of racial injustice and the anger that fomented under oppression. And for decades after, Cambridge continued to suffer from these self-inflicted wounds, leaving blacks with little economic opportunity or political power. In the 1980s, a series of civil rights lawsuits slowly brought change to the political order on the Eastern Shore, forcing Cambridge and surrounding Dorchester County to adopt voter districts where blacks would constitute a majority -- and thereby overcoming longtime racially polarized voting patterns.
Last Monday, the city's troubled history turned a page. A new city council was sworn into office and for the first time, a majority of the council's members are black. Since slightly less than half of Cambridge's 11,000 or so residents are black, the results are particularly welcome. In the city's 4th Ward, 44-year-old La-Shon Brooks beat a white incumbent. Local residents say she needed -- and received -- support from the ward's white voters to do it.
What a difference 37 years makes.
"Anybody who lives here has to deal with our history. We all know it," says Cleveland L. Rippons, 49, the city's white mayor and a county native. "We have moved forward."
Indeed, the Cambridge of the 1960s is a fading memory. Poverty remains an issue, and so does unemployment; there's still a substantial prosperity gap between whites and blacks. But the long-stagnant local economy is on the move. The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort, the city's 400-room getaway on the Choptank River, has changed the way outsiders perceive Cambridge, which, at the time of the riots, was supported largely by manufacturing, food-packing and seafood.
Now Cambridge is becoming a tourist town, and a building boom may be under way. There are more new houses planned for the city (6,000) than currently exist, city officials boast. The largest development, Deep Harbour, a $100 million mixed-use project, will feature hundreds of upscale waterfront townhouses and condominiums.
Surely, the timing of all this is no coincidence. The city that once required the National Guard to keep the peace is now a symbol of racial progress and unleashed opportunity.
That's an enviable legacy.