In a ceremony filled with song and tributes, the state's top leaders renamed Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday for civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.
Speaking from her wheelchair in front of the statue of Marshall at the State House, Dorothy Height, the longtime head of the National Council of Negro Women, said Marshall's courage, optimism and perseverance were an inspiration to her and the other great leaders of the civil rights movement.
"We have opened doors, and many of our young generation don't know how they got open," Height said. "It's good we have symbolic tributes like this statue and the airport because generations to come will learn about Thurgood Marshall. Here was a man who put his life on the line, not for himself, but for others."
Stung by his rejection by the University of Maryland law school because of his race in 1930, Marshall, a Baltimore native, became one of the most prominent and successful civil rights lawyers of the 20th century. His first major case as an attorney was to successfully sue the University of Maryland, forcing it to admit a black student.
His most famous case was Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down in 1954 the "separate but equal" doctrine that was the basis for legal segregation.
Del. Emmett C. Burns, the Randallstown pastor who spearheaded the effort to change the airport's name, said there is no better tribute for Marshall than to name for him an institution that has become the gateway to the state.
The airport served more than 20 million passengers last year, a near record.
Every time someone flies into or out of Maryland -- or every time they turn on the news and see what the weather is like at the airport -- they will be reminded of a man who risked his life to give opportunities to all, Burns said.
"This takes it beyond a local recognition, and since he was a ubiquitous person, it is fitting he get wider exposure," Burns said. "This airport is the best way to do it."
No one in the legislature argued that Marshall was not deserving of a tribute, but the effort to rename the airport was controversial because some business groups feared a name change would hurt one of Maryland's most important economic engines.
As part of a compromise, lawmakers agreed to put Marshall's name after "Baltimore-Washington International" instead of before it to allow a gradual phase-in of the change to minimize the costs of new signs.
The bill, which was signed yesterday, also requires that the Board of Public Works approve the change, though that appears to be a formality. A spokesman for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said he hasn't decided how to vote, but the other two members, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., have indicated they support the change, which would go into effect Oct. 1.
"This bill was a little bit controversial. Let there be no controversy. This is the right and appropriate thing to do," said Ehrlich, who added that when people think of Marshall, they will now think of Maryland.
Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline industry analysis and consulting firm in Port Washington, N.Y., said the cost to change all the airport signs, letterhead and other materials will be significant, but allowing the new name to be phased in over time will minimize the impact.
Impact on business
But the long-term consequences of the change will likely be minimal, he said. The reason the airport was named Baltimore-Washington International Airport in the first place was to emphasize its proximity to Washington, an important piece of marketing. But as long as that part of the name and the three-letter airport code stay intact, Mann said, the change probably won't have any negative impact on business.
Travelers and workers at the airport yesterday generally said they approve of the change.
"If a man is doing much good in his life, then he deserves that his name remain forever," said Rabbi Nes Kostel of Pikesville, who was sitting on a bench with his family near the ticket counters yesterday.
Bufford Siggers, a skycap from West Baltimore, said the new name will spark conversations about Marshall and his role in the nation.
"This helps include us in the history of America," said Siggers, who is black. "People don't know how painful racism is."
Marshall was born in Baltimore in 1908. After college, he applied to the University of Maryland law school and was rejected because he was black. He attended Howard University law school instead and dedicated himself to civil rights work.
He argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court and won nearly all of them. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served until 1991. Marshall died two years later.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is the first African-American popularly elected to statewide office in Maryland, said Marshall's legacy lives today in the opportunities that are open to blacks and other minorities.
"I and so many others stand on his shoulders," Steele said. "We are not where we are without him."
Height, of the National Council of Negro Women, said the importance of the state's tribute to Marshall is not just to remember his deeds but to keep alive his quest for equality.
"We have a long way to go, but if we look at Thurgood Marshall, we know there is no task we can't undertake if we have our eyes set on social justice," she said.
Sun staff writers Meredith Cohn and Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.